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Handshake bans to stop the coronavirus might be overkill in most places

Fear of the spreading coronavirus has led groups around the world to abandon niceties and recommend against handshakes, which are now discouraged at next month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where high-profile companies are already dropping out due to coronavirus concerns. The gesture is also reportedly unwelcome at Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm in San Francisco. Even youth soccer leagues in Canada nixed post-game handshakes.

The rash of announcements sounds familiar: during the panic of the swine flu epidemic in the US, my high school sports team was given a similar edict: no high fives or handshakes after games. Instead, we tapped elbows.

“Handshake bans are not a new idea,” says Brian Labus, assistant professor of public health at the University of Nevada, in an email to The Verge. “They seem to pop up every time there is a big outbreak of a new disease or even during severe flu season.” In 2014, a group of doctors called for bans on handshakes in health care settings to avoid spreading infections around.

Hands can pass along germs that can cause disease, especially respiratory infections like colds or the flu. One study found that high-fives and fist bumps knock down the amount of bacteria that transfer from person to person, probably because of the smaller surface area and shorter amount of time the hands are in contact. The risk of a handshake, though, is related to hand hygiene practices, says Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention in the Johns Hopkins Health System. If people wash their hands regularly and sneeze into their elbows, handshakes won’t be as risky.

Cutting out handshakes could be added on to the list of steps experts recommend people take to protect against cold and flu season, Maragakis says. “There are a package of things we recommend, including the flu vaccine, paying attention to hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette.” Anything that might reduce the transmission of a potentially disease-causing bug is a good thing, she says. As a bonus, it’s already socially acceptable. It’s not uncommon to see people say that they’re not shaking hands, out of courtesy, because they’re getting over an illness.

But right now, in the United States and Canada, declining to shake hands won’t have much of an impact on the spread of coronavirus because coronavirus isn’t actively circulating in any communities in either country. Turning down an outstretched hand won’t reduce the risk of someone catching something they probably weren’t going to get in the first place. Swine flu was actively spreading in the United States when I was in high school, for example, so there was a higher chance it could be passed around after a soccer game. That’s not currently true for coronavirus.

Still, if handshaking is spreading regular colds and flu around, skipping one might reduce the risk of those diseases. It may only help a little, though. “It’s not going to matter all that much if you sit next to someone who is coughing and sneezing on you anyway,” Labus says. “People need to also remember to stay home if they are sick. That is going to make a much bigger difference.”

Maragakis says that she’s never gone out of her way to recommend that people skip handshakes, anyway. “It’s not an unreasonable strategy, but it may be overkill,” she says.

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