Swine flu prompts calls for 'kissing strike' in Spain
Madrid: H1N1 influenza is prompting tough health measures around the globe, but could it go as far as forcing a "kissing strike" in traditionally affectionate Spain?
The health authorities are recommending that Spaniards no longer greet each other with the usual kiss on both cheeks. But many people say kissing is so important they are willing to risk catching the disease, popularly known as swine flu.
"What would people think if I refused to return their kisses?" exclaims Maria, 40. "I am so used to it, I could not stop doing it."
Even Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez herself has been seen greeting officials with kisses, despite the warnings issued by her ministry.
As in some other Mediterranean countries, Spanish women and even male relatives or friends greet each other with kisses or at least with gestures of kissing on the cheeks.
Spanish people generally like touching each other, for instance placing their hand around the shoulder or their hand on the hand of the person they are talking to.
However, kisses and hugs are among the most effective ways of spreading H1N1, experts warn in the country where swine flu has killed around 20 people, one of the highest rates in Europe.
The health ministry is planning to vaccinate people with chronic diseases, health and some other professionals, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups. There will be sufficient vaccines for up to 60 percent of the population.
Above all, however, the authorities intend to focus on information campaigns advising people to avoid habits that could spread the virus.
"Do not kiss, do not shake hands, just say hi," the Madrid city council recommended in a placard it placed on a wall of the city hall.
"Getting used to limiting close contact diminishes the risk of transmission (of the virus)," Juan Jose Rodriguez Sendin, president of a doctors` organisation, told the daily El Pais.
The Catholic Church has heeded the warning, recommending to believers that they refrain from kissing statues of the Virgin Mary during religious celebrations.
During religious services where Catholics eat a small wafer of bread, some priests have also begun placing the wafer in the hand of the communicant. Traditionally, priests placed it directly in the mouth of the person.
Some churches have emptied fonts of holy water to prevent the virus from spreading if an infected person dips a hand in the font.
Prior to the appearance of swine flu, the custom of kissing the cheeks had become a little less common. Some sociologists say that was possibly because of the influence of the colder and physically more distant US culture.
Kissing has often not been replaced with the handshake typical of US or northern European cultures, observed Irene, a Madrid civil servant.
"Some people no longer touch each other at all when meeting, just nodding at each other," she said.
That would be ideal for fighting H1N1, but experts doubt whether most Spaniards can change their ways, and concede that they would have a lot to lose if they did.
There is an abundance of scientific studies proving what nearly every human being instinctively knows: that touching is good for us.
It increases self-confidence, lowers arterial pressure, makes people more sociable and less aggressive, studies show.
"It is very unlikely that we will forget kissing," El Pais concluded.