As health officials around the world monitor an outbreak of swine flu that has killed more then 150 people in Mexico and spread to six other countries, Episcopal churches are examining liturgical practices and reviewing emergency plans.
"Swine flu is currently being handled by the health authorities. We are, however, prepared to respond through our church networks should we be needed," said Abagail Nelson, senior vice president for programs at the New York headquarters of Episcopal Relief and Development, the church's disaster-relief and economic-development agency.
About 1,600 people have been sickened in Mexico and 50 cases have been reported so far in the United States, but no deaths. After the outbreak was confirmed on April 24, a number of churches in Mexico City on Sunday, April 26 canceled services.
Information about preparing for a potential pandemic influenza outbreak is available on Episcopal Relief and Development's website here. The site carries a list of questions and answers about pandemic influenza and contains links to information and resources for church people in the areas of preparation, care-giving, liturgy and spiritual practice.
"It is our hope that by preparing for the possibility of an influenza pandemic, the Episcopal community will be better able to protect each other and serve those in need," said Nelson in an statement.
In Denver, the Diocese of Colorado sent its clergy a brochure from the Northeast Colorado Health Department with advice about preparing an emergency kit, disease prevention and web links and phone numbers for further information.
The Diocese of Texas distributed an information sheet for churches to give to parishioners at Sunday services. The dioceses in the Episcopal Church's Province IV, which includes the U.S. southeast states, recently released a disaster preparedness plan that includes disease pandemics.
Churches -- like other public places where people gather regularly -- could be sites of disease transmission. During previous outbreaks of illness, such as the incidence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 in 37 countries, the U.S. and Canada, certain worship practices also came under scrutiny. During Episcopal Sunday services, many people shake hands or hug during part of the service called the "passing of the peace," sip wine from the same communion chalice or dip the communion wafer in the wine.
Episcopal Church diocesan bishops have the authority to order changes in worship, said Clay Morris, program officer for worship and spirituality, at the church center in New York. Research collected at his office, he said, shows that the practice of sharing the chalice, called the "common cup," generally carries a very low risk of infection. "We are told repeatedly that the common cup is not a health hazard," he said in an interview. Usually, the cup bearer wipes the rim and turns the cup after each person sips.
However, he said, the practice of dipping the wafer, called intinction, may carry a higher risk since fingers are also often dipped into the wine. During the SARS outbreak in Canada, at least one diocese, the Diocese of Niagara (Ontario), banned intinction in its churches. The Anglican Church of Canada published on its website a research report on risks of infection and communion practices.