The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

One in 3 Canadians less inclined to shake hands because of swine flu: poll

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WINNIPEG - As Canada prepares to welcome the world to the Winter Olympics with an elbow bump rather than a handshake, concern over swine flu is prompting some people in this country to back away from handshakes and hugs.

Roughly one-third of those surveyed for a Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll said they were less inclined to shake hands because of the H1N1 virus. Even more - 52 per cent-reported that someone else had declined to shake hands with or hug them because they were worried about spreading the virus.

But the poll suggested that these precautions aren't new - almost two in three people had declined to touch others in the past for fear of passing along an illness.

"Canadians are pretty familiar already with the more polite habit of avoiding things like hugs or handshakes when you or someone you are with has a virus," said Doug Anderson, senior vice-president at Harris-Decima.

"It certainly suggests to me that - as the flu season approaches - that is a practice people are going to be accepting and undertaking themselves."

But Canadians aren't likely to be put off by any germaphobic tendencies, the poll suggested. The vast majority surveyed said they wouldn't be offended if someone refused to shake hands because of the flu.

Just over 1,000 Canadians were surveyed between Oct. 8 and Oct. 12. The poll is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Across the world, people have been urged to cut down on physical contact with others. Olympic officials have advised athletes to think twice about shaking hands or kissing, suggesting some might want to bump elbows instead.

Health officials in Spain and France have said it might be a good idea for citizens to avoid the customary kiss of greeting on both cheeks.

And in Canada, archdioceses from Halifax to Vancouver are substituting the customary handshake during the sign of peace with a bow of the head. And holy water fonts are being sanitized and left empty.

In Edmonton, the minor soccer association has asked players to stand in front of one another and clap after a game in a show of sportsmanship instead of shaking hands.

Some health officials say all these precautions are a bit of an overreaction. Joel Kettner, Manitoba's medical officer of health, said he's not advising anyone to skip the handshake or the hug "if the conditions are appropriate."

As long as you don't immediately put your hands near your mouth following the handshake, Kettner said the chances of getting the virus are slim.

"This is not a skin-to-skin transmitted disease," he said. "Merely shaking hands, even if it's with someone who has the flu ... if you don't touch your hand to your eyes, nose or mouth before the virus dies, then you are not going to get influenza."

If people want to avoid getting the virus, Kettner says frequent handwashing is more effective.

"Kissing is a little bit more direct exposure, so pick your kissing partners a little more carefully."

Still, fear of the virus has changed behaviour on aboriginal reserves in Manitoba. Some small communities were hit disproportionately hard by the virus last spring. Patients were airlifted to intensive-care units in Winnipeg daily.

Grand Chief Ron Evans with the Assembly of First Nations said fear of the flu has permeated the reserves.

"It's impacting our culture," he said. "Even how people greet one another. It's not the handshake anymore. It's maybe touching fists. We see people doing that now."

Concerns about contagion have affected more than simple greetings, he added. When one woman on the reserve lost a loved one to the flu last spring, people didn't call on her to commiserate because they were worried about catching the virus.

"One wonders what will happen when the outbreak happens (this fall) because everyone will be going into survival mode ... You would think that our compassion and our sorrow that we feel for one another would override the fear."

But at least one Canadian shrine is resistant to people's worries about catching or spreading H1N1 - Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame, home of the Stanley Cup.

Spokeswoman Kelly Masse says people often still kiss and touch the cup.

"We clean it every night," she says. "It's sterling silver and it collects fingerprints, but I don't think anyone's ever talked about (the swine flu)."

The federal health minister says two million doses of the swine flu vaccine have been shipped to the provinces and territories to await final sign off from Ottawa.

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