Doctors have advised against kissing or hugging people who are suffering from coughs and cold, saying that it is a basic precaution against viruses.
But doctors said it is premature to say that such public greetings should be stopped because of the fear of Mers-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) being transmitted.
Mers-CoV is a respiratory virus similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus that infected about 8,000 people, and caused nearly 800 deaths, across the world in late 2002 and early 2003. Globally, more than 400 people have been infected by Mers-CoV since the virus surfaced in September 2012, and more than 100 people have died from it.
One doctor has advised Emiratis to stop greeting each other in the traditional manner known as ‘Mokhashama’, where men greet each other touching noses while shaking hands.
Dr Asim Malek, chief of infectious diseases and chairman of infection control at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said: “We advise people to avoid touching the nose, mouth and eyes in the case of all respiratory illnesses.”
He said the infection control precaution against Mers-CoV (Middle East Respiratory-Coronavirus) would be not to practise the nose-to-nose greeting, the doctor said.
This is because most pathogens that affect the respiratory system are transmitted through close contact with infected persons and contaminated surfaces, he said
The nose-to-nose greeting is practised throughout the Gulf, but is most common in the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
Dr Malek, who has encountered a number of Mers-CoV infections in the UAE, also asked people to refrain from contact with those who have been afflicted by any kind of respiratory illness.
“On the other hand, those who have been taken ill should avoid crowded places to prevent spreading the condition,” he said.
Asked if a nose-to-nose greeting is riskier than a handshake, Dr Malek said any kind of physical interaction with an infected patient could allow for the transmission of the virus.
“But direct contact with an infected person’s nose may pose more hazards than a handshake as a general rule, although no studies confirm this yet,” he said.
Dr Lalit Uchil, specialist, internal medicine at Mediclinic, Al Sufouh, said not kissing and hugging a person with a cough and cold is a basic precaution against any virus.
But he said that it was premature to tell people to stop the traditional greeting as Mers was not a epidemic.
Mohammad Ali, a 38-year-old Emirati, said he will follow doctors’ advice and practice the custom less often.
“Most of the people I deal with are expatriates so I don’t practise the custom a lot in the first place. In Islam the elderly are excused from praying while standing, so why shouldn’t tradition be flexible if doctors say there is a definite risk. I believe that Emirati men should refrain from practising it for now.”
Another Emirati, Abdullah Al Khattal, 24, on the other hand, said he will not stop doing it.
“Since ‘mokhashama’ is practised by Bedouins who are more likely to interact with camels, and Mers originated from camels, it makes sense to refrain from it, but I personally won’t stop because I believe that people who are sick would tell me beforehand.”
Al Khattal who greets all Emirati men by ‘mokhashama’ said Emiratis who are sick, even if it was just flu, usually do not practise the custom.
“I will never stop doing it, it’s a unique traditional custom that we have. It is part of our culture.”
Emirati, Ahmad Bin Al Shaikh however, said he usually only practises the custom with people he knows, but said that after the warning he will stop it altogether.
“I think it is worth taking the precaution and just shaking hands if it means remaining safe and healthy,” he said.