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September 8, 2009

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Swine flu threatens French kiss

"LA bise," the cheek-to-cheek peck that the French use to say hello or goodbye, has come under pressure from swine flu.

Some French schools, companies and a Health Ministry hotline are telling students and employees to avoid the social ritual out of fear the pandemic could make it the kiss of death, or at least illness, as winter approaches.

Mainland France has so far only counted three swine flu deaths. The tally is worse in French southern hemisphere holdings now in winter, like the South Pacific island of Nouvelle Caledonie, with seven deaths and 35,000 cases overall, according to local officials.

Across France, authorities and school officials are taking few chances - while trying to avoid stirring panic when the academic year started last week. In recent months, a few schools in France have been temporarily shut after cases of swine flu emerged.

For kids in two schools in the town of Guilvinec, in Brittany, the first lesson of the year came from local officials: no more cheek kisses.

"I asked the children not to kiss anymore," Mayor Helene Tanguy said. "I felt that the protections sought - to wash hands regularly, not throw used handkerchiefs around, and not cough any old way - had no meaning if we let the kids keep kissing. It seems we were the first town to do so."

There's no punishment involved for those who do exchange bises, she added.

The national government isn't calling for a ban. But the Health Ministry, on its swine flu phone hotline, recommends that people avoid "close contact - including shaking hands and giving the bise."


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