Father Christmases in America have demanded priority status for anti-swine flu jabs as part of an arsenal of precautions they are taking before welcoming the seasonal tide of runny-nosed children.
Doctors have warned that the traditional visit to Santa could become one of the prime means of spreading the H1N1 swine flu virus throughout America.
Santa’s bonhomie is likely to be further strained after health organisations raised concerns that the much loved figure would be one of the most likely victims of the H1N1 virus.
Professional Santa organisations have urged members to install hand sanitisers at grotto entrances and exits, removed gloves when handling children, and subject suits and beards to extra cleaning. Shops have given elves the additional responsibility of weeding out sickly-looking children from the queues.
The ritual has become such a central part of American life that some Santas estimate they see around 10,000 children each season.
“We don’t want any child to go without seeing Santa, but it’s not worth bringing your child to the mall, infecting the Santa and infecting the other children,” said Nicholas Trolli, president of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
Santa leaders have already asked congressmen in Washington to make their members a priority group for the H1N1 vaccine on a par with health workers.
The Amalgamated Order, which included a seminar on the virus at a recent seminar, has told members to use hand sanitisers and boost their immune systems with vitamins.
The health fears are not entirely altruistic. Ernest Berger, president of Santa America – whose 200 volunteers visit sick or grieving children – said Father Christmases were particularly vulnerable to the virus, since obese people are particularly vulnerable to developing severe swine flu.
Two thirds of American Santas are overweight and a third are morbidly obese.
Mr. Berger’s members have been instructed to wash their suits twice as frequently as usual and not to wear gloves but wash their hands frequently.