Hungary's Health Authority Warns Santa Claus Of Swine Flu

Hungarian health authorities have launched a national campaign warning Hungary's Santa Claus to avoid kissing children and shaking their hands to prevent spreading the swine flu virus. They also want him to get vaccinated against the illness. About 16 people have died of the H1N1 virus in Hungary, hundreds of others in neighboring Eastern European nations.


Stefan Bos

Hungarian health authorities have launched a national campaign warning Hungary's Santa Claus to avoid kissing children and shaking their hands to prevent spreading the swine flu virus.  They also want him to get vaccinated against the illness.  About 16 people have died of the H1N1 virus in Hungary hundreds of others in neighboring Eastern European nations.   

If it is up to the Hungarian state health authority, Santa Claus, known here as 'Mikulas', will keep his distance from children amid concerns over swine flu.

But Mikulas says he wants to visit kids anywhere, from homes to orphanages and hospitals.

He does not arrive empty handed.  According to legend, Mikulas will put gifts in children's shoes, or socks, placed in front of windows in the night of December 5 through December 6.    

Hungary's chief medical officer, Dr. Ferenc Falus, has mixed feelings about his plans.

With tens of thousands of Hungarians already infected by the swine flu virus, H1N1, and more than a dozen dying of the disease, Dr. Falus demands Mikulas and his helpers be careful when approaching children.

Dr. Falus tells VOA News the state-run National Public Health and Medical Office Service (ANTSZ) launched a nationwide awareness campaign to get Mikulas vaccinated. 

He says the action is also aimed at encouraging Hungary's Santa Claus to observe basic hygiene.  

"We advise Santa Claus to wash is beard and mustache, and not to kiss the children," said Ferenc Falus. "And [we also advise him to] clean his hands and clean the hands of the children also when he is giving the presents to the children. So, we think it is very important. And normally we are advising Santa Claus also, and the children also, to keep a social distance in this [flu] season of the year." 

Mikulas associations have complained about the campaign.  They fear a drop in revenues as companies may cancel massive Mikulas meetings for employees and their children because of infection fears.

Public Health Advisor Dr. Beatrix Oroszi says she was even forced to debate the issue with a Mikulas look-alike on national television.

"There are companies in Hungary who are organize gatherings with the children," said Beatrix Oroszi. "They meet with Mikulas and this is a big celebration in Hungary.  These companies had two basic concerns.  One is that the public health authority wants to restrict or prohibit these kind of gatherings.  And that is not true.  And the other problem was that they are discriminating [against] Mikulas in a negative way.  No way, we are not so brave to discriminate Mikulas."

Hungary's health authority is against closing its borders, saying this will do little to stop flu infections and only disrupt the economy. 

Officials say they hope their Santa Claus campaign will help people to get injected against swine flu, after what they call "stupid" reports about the dangers of vaccines.

Nearby, Hungarians take money out of an automatic banking machine.        

Hungarians and foreigners living here can get vaccinated against swine flu for about $17.  Some, even those within the health community, have criticized it as a way to make money for the state, which is facing an economic crisis.

But the health authority says children, pensioners with serious illnesses and homeless people receive vaccinations for free.

Health officials say six million vaccinations were produced in Hungary for a population of 10 million people, with more available when needed.

Dr. Zsuzsanna Jelenik of the International Center for Vaccination is busy these days. 

"The average number of people is about 110 to 120 people per day," said Zsuzsanna Jelenik. "Usually they are Hungarian citizens and about 10 percent of the vaccinated persons are foreigners.  Because we are the center for the travel vaccination as well, so we have to share the time to give the vaccination concerning traveling and give the H1N1 vaccination.  But we have to deal with people.  Some of them are a bit nervous or tired, but it can happen with us as well."

Under privacy regulations, Dr. Jelenik can not confirm whether an elderly man wearing a red winter dress and beard has visited her already.

Whatever the controversy,  Hungarian children are eagerly awaiting Mikulas with music and songs. 

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