Don’t Wanna Hold Your Hand

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Ross MacDonald illustration for the New York Times

Suffice to say, I’m not germ phobic.  If I were, I wouldn’t live on a farm handling manure everyday, and I wouldn’t work as a health care provider in the “culture media” otherwise referred to as a university student health center.  I’ve learned to live in harmony with all the pathogens I come in contact with, and, for the most part, we leave each other alone.

Yet there comes a time (and this is it!) when a little paranoia about viruses is warranted.  This current early influenza season has the potential to be a real humdinger because the virus people are passing between them is unfamiliar to the majority of the younger (under age 50) population, so their immune systems are not readily primed for the antibody fight.  So there may be good reason for social rituals to adapt to protect the unprotected.

There is reasonable evidence that H1N1 influenza really takes hold in environments where people are doing a great deal of “meet and greet” activities, such as sorority and fraternity “rush” week at universities.  That means that hand shakes and hugs, or the seemingly benign cheek kiss, confer more than good will.  They become the vectors of a viral gift, ready to transfer to our mucus membranes with an innocent rub of an itchy eye, or licking of our lips after touching the outside of our mouths, or running the back of our hand across our noses.

In other words, we inadvertently share and receive more than we intend with a simple greeting ritual.  This becomes important during a time when potentially fatal viruses are circulating widely, especially as a certain percentage of the population will tend to be “carriers” without having obvious symptoms,  effectively becoming unwitting transmitters.

So this fall, the time has come to stop greeting with hand shakes, particularly in “high volume” situations like political rallies, wedding and funeral receptions, church lobbies and school orientation activities.  The options to replace the hand shake are plenty, but ideally should minimize physical contact.   I prefer a simple nod, leaning forward, hands behind my back, and actually using my vocal cords to do the work:  “good to see you”  or some other gracious few words.

I’m not being unfriendly, nor am I rebuffing your friendly extended hand.  I just don’t want to share what I may have just been exposed to a few minutes earlier without having had a chance to adequately wash my hands, as I would if I were working in the barn or the clinic.  Just like the classic classroom exercise illustrating how many sexual partners you exponentially end up with when you consider all the partners of the partner’s partners, etc. —when you shake my hand, you are shaking the hand of everyone I’ve touched since the last time I washed my hands.  In certain social situations, that can be an overwhelming number of contacts.  So let’s just take handshaking out of the equation and make it a little tougher for this virus to find its way from me to you.

So it’s good to see you looking so well. And I really want you to stay that way.