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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Cultural Change in the Face of a Pandemic Flu Virus - Can We Do It?

I entered my first laboratory course in microbiology 101 as a young university student in 1966.  Our assignment for that day was to investigate the impact of shaking hands on the spread of viruses.  Some students "contaminated" their hands with a harmless tobacco mosaic virus.  They then washed with soap and water, shook hands with another student, and then swabbed the hands of these un-contaminated students to determine the number of viruses transferred to their hands.  This process of hand washing and hand shaking was repeated.  Our conclusion - viruses were still transferred from hand to hand, even after six successive washes!


Now here we are in the 21st century and the news media is filled with concerns about the sinister avian flu virus as well as retrospective stories about vast numbers of people dieing during the Spanish flu pandemic after World War 1.  The reoccurrence of a potentially lethal pandemic seems inevitable.  As a result, the governments of countries around the world are spending large sums of money on the purchase of drugs and the development of laboratories capable of producing new flu vaccines. 

New technologies like vaccines and drugs are all plausible responses to the serious threat of a flu pandemic.  However, what these high-tech measures all have in common is high costs with no guarantee of 100% success.  Therefore, in the face of a potentially lethal threat to our lives, and even to our society, should we not consider supplementing high tech innovations with small cultural adaptations?  For example, the elimination of our "hand-shaking culture" would be relatively painless and would reduce the risk of getting and spreading a lethal flu virus. The cost of this "cultural" change would be zero dollars! 

During a pandemic flu crises, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended social isolation measures (i.e., no crowds) and frequent hand washing (WHO Handbook for Journalists: Influenza Pandemic, Dec 2005).  However, this type of response is typical of a large bureaucracy - too little and too late.  Instead, we should act to prevent or minimize any crises by discouraging hand contact.

In his recent book "Collapse", Jared Diamond discusses the inability of many societies to adapt or change cultural habits to preserve their civilizations. A notable failure to adapt (from a distressingly long list!) is indicated by ancient stone churches that are just about all that is left of Iceland's Viking civilization.  Evidently, the Vikings clung to a doomed land-based European system of beef and dairy farming on that barren landscape.  They considered the Inuit's sea-based culture inferior and unworthy of their Christian and European heritage.  The consequence of this blind and unquestioning arrogance was extinction.

In a comparison of Polynesian civilizations, the infamous Easter Island civilization did not change its cultural practice of building elaborate wooden structures (as well as scaffolds for their famous stone faces).  The resulting deforestation of their island initiated a process of social collapse and ultimately doomed their society. In contrast,  one other nearby island civilization survived into modern times because they changed their traditional (cultural) practice of pig farming when they recognised that pigs were destroying the island's ecology by accelerating soil erosion and removing vegetation. So cultural change is possible if there is rational leadership, if religious and governmental institutions are not mired in tradition, and if the population can understand and respond appropriately to a perceived threat.


Culture and tradition are a collection of socially prescribed habits, evolved from some long-distant reality that may or may not still exist, hardened by years of practice and intellectual laziness, and often enshrined in socio-religious mythology.  For example, the art of hand shaking presumably arose in western cultures to demonstrate a warrior's peaceful intentions after a battle.  Had those warriors taken that microbiology 101 course, they might have chosen a better method to demonstrate nonviolence - a method less suited to the spread of bacteria and viruses. 

We use hands to wipe our eyes, mouth and noses, to pick up objects of dubious cleanliness, to pet animals and dig manure and a thousand other tasks.  No matter how often washed, hands can never be clean.

The tradition of hand shaking should cease - immediately!  It would be a simple and logical socio-cultural adaptation to a plausible threat and should be accepted quickly by any rational society.  In order to make this cultural change, we must be more adaptable than the Vikings, more educated than the people on Easter Island, and more realistic about the potential vulnerability of our civilization to social upheaval and collapse.  And, as demonstrated by the derisive laughter that this idea typically receives, we need to overcome the stupefying weight of tradition and culture.

Other immensely significant problems (global warming, peace keeping, development aid to starving countries) will likely require much more gut-wrenching and substantive changes in our economic and social lives.  Surely, we can make this one small cultural change to decrease the number of deaths from a potentially catastrophic viral pandemic.

As an alternative to hand shaking, we could greet each other as they do in many parts of the Asian world - a small bow with hands compressed and extended in front.  However, if the "tradition" of physical touching is vital to our collective western psyche, surely we are smart enough to devise some other cultural adaptation.  We could shake elbows.

Peter Nix
Maple Bay, B.C.