Fear of swine flu sends Israelis scrambling for hand sanitizer
Pharmacy reps say demand for cleaning products the highest since the Second Gulf War.
As the summer ends, Israelis are preparing for more than the usual back-to-school and Jewish holiday periods. This year they are also getting ready for swine flu.
While Israelis have not been asked to change their hugging and kissing habits - yet - as elsewhere in the world, nonetheless the first signs of hysteria over the H1N1 virus are appearing.
Sales of cleaning and sanitation products have leaped by thousands of percent. Representatives of the SuperPharm pharmacy chain say they have not seen anything like this since the Second Gulf War - hand sanitizing gel sales are up 4,000 percent since the school year started last week.
In the last two days, the chain sold 50,000 units of the gel. Suppliers can't keep up with the demand, and have been forced to supplement local products with Asian imports.
But the Health Ministry has yet to publish recommendations calling on the public to stock up on sanitary products or face masks, and says the usual measures are enough: wash your hands, and cover your mouth with a handkerchief when sneezing or coughing. Most importantly, don't touch body parts where flu viruses concentrate and have the best chance of infection: the mouth, nose and eyes.
Overdoing it, and violating ministry rules
"One third of the meeting before the opening of the school year was devoted to swine flu," said the mother of a Tel Aviv first-grader. She said the children were asked to come to class with wet wipes and hand cleansing gel. Any child who misses a day of school must return with a doctor's note, saying he or she is not infectious.
However, the Education Ministry has not instructed students to bring sanitation materials to school. "One of the ways to avoid flu infection is being hygienic, washing hands with soap and water only," the ministry says. It "objects to requiring parents to equip their children with chemical preparations."
As with most ad campaigns in Israel, the Health Ministry's campaign against swine flu has its ultra-Orthodox version. It is similar to the one for the general public, but the cartoon characters washing their hands are all wearing skullcaps.
The ultra-Orthodox community is no less worried about what it calls Mexican flu - to avoid mentioning the name of unkosher animals - than the public at large. However, despite the large number of infections in yeshivas, there are no plans to cut back on mass learning, public prayers or holiday meals.
Creative solutions have appeared to avoid infection and increase public awareness. For example, ritual baths now have signs calling on the public to avoid infection. Even the Gerer Hassidim have given up their generations-old custom of sharing the rabbi's Shabbat wine, and now each Hasid gets his own disposable cup.