A Catholic diocese in Northern Ireland has temporarily banned handshakes in an effort to minimize the risk of contracting the Australian flu, which has now spread across the U.K.
The outbreak of the H3N2 virus, commonly known as "Australian flu," in the U.K. and Northern Ireland has prompted the Catholic diocese of Down and Connor to introduce new sanitary measures.
"Having received medical advice concerning the increasing risk and impact of Australian flu, the diocese of Down and Connor has decided to reactivate ... precautionary measures originally established by the diocese in response to the swine flu epidemic in 2009," Bishop Noel Treanor said in a statement, according to The Guardian.
Treanor encouraged parishioners to use disinfecting hand gels and soaps to minimize the risk of infection and urged them to stay home if they start exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
"The customary sign of peace handshake exchanged during mass is suspended until the risk of infection is significantly reduced ... Other provisions will be made for those who suffer from a coeliac condition, such as separate chalices," Treanor continued.
It is feared that H3N2 has spread to almost all parts of the U.K. following a surge in flu cases over the weekend. About 4.5 million people are believed to be infected with the flu over the past week, according to the online tool FluSurvey. The Independent reported that several people in Ireland have died due to the deadly strain.
The statement from the diocese commended those working in the medical field, noting that "hospitals across Northern Ireland are currently experiencing high numbers of patient admissions of those suffering from respiratory illnesses directly linked to the flu virus."
"These precautionary measures are temporary and will remain under review until the risk of infection is significantly reduced," the diocese went on to say.
The H3N2 virus has been dubbed the Australian flu because it was the same strain of flu that has struck the country last winter. There have been at least 170,000 confirmed cases in Australia at the end of winter, more than twice as many as in last year.
Dr. Richard Pebody, acting head of respiratory diseases at Public Health England, said that the flu vaccine is the best protection from the illness, adding that "it isn't too late to get vaccinated."
He noted that FluSurvey's map only contains data from 7,500 Britons and should be interpreted with caution because it simply provides information for flu-like illnesses and does not specifically reveal the rising number of cases of the H3N2.
Symptoms of the Australian flu can include an aching body exhaustion, loss of appetite, sudden fevers, nausea and headaches, according to the U.K.'s National Health Service.