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Handshakes, high fives return as US flu fears wane

The US traditions of handshakes at graduation and slapping a high five during sports competitions were banned when fears of a swine flu pandemic were at their peak, but are gingerly making a comeback.

"Did you see that? We touched skin," an 11-year-old boy said after he and his baseball teammates tapped forearms with the opposing side after a Little League game in the Washington suburb of Rockville.

Not quite a high five, but a long way from the directive sent out two weeks ago by the Rockville Baseball Association recommending that the tradition of slapping palms be "replaced with a post-game cheer or round of applause for the opposition."

That recommendation came just days after the World Health Organization warned that an outbreak of (A)H1N1 flu, which began in Mexico, was spreading like wildfire and a pandemic was imminent.

"When you use the word 'pandemic,' you're bound to get a lot of people's attention," said Joel Kleinsasser, spokesman for Wichita State University in Kansas, where officials announced two weeks ago there would be no handshaking when students collected their diplomas at this week's graduation ceremony.

But as news about the flu outbreak began to be tempered, with officials saying the virus caused illness no more severe than seasonal flu, Wichita State officials had a change of heart.

"In the process of taking a look at it and discussing it, the administration determined that it would probably be okay to say we would be shaking hands," said Kleinsasser.

"But if a student doesn't feel comfortable with it, they aren't going to be forced to do it," he said.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) opened the way for the revival of another US tradition -- taking holidays south of the border -- when it downgraded a travel warning for Mexico, which had been in effect since April 27, to a travel health precaution.

While the warning advised against any non-essential travel to Mexico, the precaution targeted only individuals at high risk for complications from influenza.

"There is evidence that the Mexican outbreak is slowing down in many cities," the CDC said in an explanatory statement.

"In addition, the United States and other countries are now seeing increasing numbers of cases not associated with travel to Mexico," it said.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the overwhelming majority of cases reported outside Mexico, (A)H1N1 ground-zero, had some sort of link with that country.

"Finally," said the CDC statement, "the risk of severe disease from novel H1N1 virus infection now appears to be less than originally thought."

Mexican Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said Friday that the epidemic, which has so far killed 68 people in Mexico, five in the United States, and one each in Canada and Costa Rica, would be under control either this month or next.

But even as US kids touched flesh after sports games, teens shook hands with university deans and Americans dusted off the holiday brochures for Mexico, new clusters of (A)H1N1 infections were reported in New York and Houston, and health officials warned against complacency.

"Influenza is always serious -- each year in the United States, seasonal influenza results on average in an estimated 36,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospitalizations," Erik Friedly, a health communication specialist at the CDC, told AFP.

"This outbreak certainly poses the potential to be at least as serious as seasonal flu, if not more so, given the fact that there currently is no vaccine against this virus and there is no immunity against it in the population."

Dan Jernigan, a medical epidemiologist at CDC's influenza division, urged Americans to not completely let down their guard because swine flu was showing few signs of fizzling out.

"The outbreak is spreading and appears to be expanding throughout the United States," he said.

"This is an ongoing public health threat ... continued vigilance and action are needed."

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Publication:AFP American Edition
Date:May 17, 2009
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