Image: Santa Claus getting flu shot
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Noah Sheray, dressed as Santa Claus, receives a flu shot from Sandra Mohan during an offer for free flu shots for Santas at the Pennington Institute for Health and Wellness on December 22, 2004 in Washington, DC. Because of this year's flu vaccination shortfall, many Santas who interact with children couldn't get a shot.
updated 11/18/2009 4:06:06 PM ET 2009-11-18T21:06:06

Forget cookies and milk. Santa wants the swine flu vaccine.

Many of the nation's Santas want to be given priority for the vaccine and not just because of those runny-nosed kids. There's also the not-so-little matter of that round belly. Research has suggested obesity could be a risk factor.

Swine flu has become such a concern that the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas featured a seminar on the illness at a recent conference in Philadelphia. The group also urged its members to use hand sanitizer and take vitamins to boost their immune systems.

The president of the organization said he also hopes parents will keep sick kids away.

"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," Nicholas Trolli said.

He recalled a boy who informed him last year that he had a fever and had stayed home from school. But, the child said, his mother thought it was a good day to visit Santa.

Ernest Berger, president of another group called Santa America, asked an Alabama congressman last week to designate Santas a priority group for the swine flu vaccine, like health care workers or infant caregivers.

A spokesman for Republican Rep. Jo Bonner confirmed Berger's request and said staff members were looking into it.

Berger hopes Santas will use hand sanitizer and encourage children to do the same, without turning the experience into a hygiene lecture.

Image: David Oelerich, Santa suits
Jim Cole  /  AP
David Oelerich stands by some of the suits he rents to Santas in New England and Canada at his "Costumes of Nashua" shop in Hudson, N.H. Ernest Berger, president of the nation's largest volunteer Santa group, wants Congress to declare Santas a high-priority for the vaccine.

"It's a delicate balance here. This is not an exercise in health care. This is visiting Santa," he said.

Santa's jiggling belly puts him a higher risk
Berger estimates that about two-thirds of all American Santas are overweight, and about a third are morbidly obese.

That raises health concerns because some research has suggested obesity could be a risk factor for severe swine flu.

A high proportion of those who have gotten severely ill from swine flu have been obese or extremely obese. But health officials have also said that might be due to the fact that heavy people tend to have asthma and other conditions that make them more susceptible.

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The 200 or so Santas who volunteer to visit sick or grieving children through Santa America will be washing their suits daily instead of weekly and will not be wearing gloves this year so they can wash their hands frequently, Berger said.

John Scheuch of Prairie Village, Kan., said he might suggest to parents that they come back another time if a child is visibly ill.

"The kids are in the strollers, sniffling and coughing and hacking. ... In the meantime, they're interacting with other kids in line."

Interactive: Is it a cold, the swine flu — or something else? Scheuch, executive director of Santa America, has taken some personal precautions. "I've had my H1N1. I've had my seasonal flu shot. This is my year for my pneumonia booster," he said. "I don't know what else I can do except encapsulate myself in plastic."

In Nashua, N.H., hand-sanitizing stations have been set up around the Pheasant Lane Mall, including just outside the picket fence surrounding the Santa Claus area. But on a recent Saturday, not one of the dozen or so families who passed through used it.

Susen Mesco, owner of American Events and Promotions in Denver, Colo., which runs a five-day Santa school, said her Santas will be wearing gloves but changing them every three hours and washing them in anti-bacterial soap.

'Maybe we shouldn't do these mass gatherings'
Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, New Hampshire's deputy state epidemiologist, said going gloveless and using gel between each child would be the best option. She cautioned that viruses can live on unwashed hands for two to eight hours.

"If your hand was warm and moist, it could live longer," she said. "It depends on whether you have a glob of mucus on your hand where it's going to live happily versus a tiny speck. It's kind of disgusting, but it would depend on what was on your hand."

Dr. Jack Turco, director of health services at Dartmouth College, said Santa might consider greeting children from a few feet away rather than holding them on his lap, or asking children with coughs to stand in a separate line.

"If we take this really seriously, and I think we should because people are dying, it wouldn't be inappropriate to say this is a year maybe we shouldn't do these mass gatherings," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Naughty, nice ... sick? Santas want flu protection

  1. Closed captioning of: Naughty, nice ... sick? Santas want flu protection

    man: add your voice.

    >>> in today's closeup, tamron, the mall san tass of america are on high alert for swine flu this year and say they should be put on the h1n1 vaccine priority list.

    >> yeah, david, they have got an interesting argument. for the next several weeks, every santa around the country will come face-to-face with more than 1,000 kids. depending on where you are, could come in contact with more than that, many of the kids will certainly have runny noses and other germs they could pass.

    >> it is a concern in that we are very close contact with kids.

    >> they will sit on your lap and you know, santa , i'd like to -- no kleenex or handkerchief but use their sleeve or their hand. you know. and then talk to you.

    >> see, they have got a great argument. because that, they are asked to give the priority for the swine flu vaccine, not only because of the kid bus research subjects that obesity could be a fact tore and one of the organizations representing the santas point to the age and weight of many of the san tass putting them in the category of obesity. joining them about the concerns over the swine flu is santa jim manning, just come from an event, toad wear the costume. thanks for joining us.

    >> thanks for having me.

    >> even the costume some say make you susceptible getting to you swine flu , you can't hand sanitize, wearing the gloves, germ does get trapped in the fur of your beard there.

    >> we are changing out gloves every performance. the reason is just because as a santa claus , i'm not just meeting with one child or this child, you know, i'm the focal point for meeting many children. so the gloves, the hand sanitizer , there's a few different things.

    >> what do you make of, you know this announcement coming out, you saying i understand the elderly, i understand pregnant women , even with the facts we have just told, santas ? come on. what do you say to those people who are dismiss sive of the argument here?

    >> i would say there is such a small portion of san tass , yet such a high number of children we are going to interact with. keep this children we are going to interact with it. a day care provider, a parent, they meet a certain number of children. as santa claus , last year i met over 1,000 children. i feel -- my opinion is it is important for the santas to have access not to mention there is a small number of us yet a lot of work we are doing.

    >> jim, a lot of people would suggest, look, doctors and nurses should be at the front of the line. you aren't suggesting santas should be ahead of them, are you? and some say there are certain risks that come with any job and the risk is too great and the joy of helping children this is a risk i should take don't be a santa .

    >> good point in terms of doctors and nurses. they should be at the head of the line. the head of the line is where in the pecking order do we fall. there is any risk in working with children. i'm a full-time family entertainer. i meet hundreds of kids each month. that being said we want to do everything we can to protect ourselves. while we are changing gloves and using hand sanitizer , there is a genuine argument that santas should be moved to the head of the line.

    >> are you willing to put up your costume or have you known of any colleagues who said i don't want to get sick?

    >> most of the santas i work with are pretty much willing to quote-unquote take the risk. it is enjoyable what we do and it is something that i think personally i'm still going to be playing santa no matter what.

    >> tamron and i will advocate for you getting the h1n1 vaccine as long as you promise to deliver lumps of coal to the ceos on wall street , deal?

    >> ho, ho, ho.

    >> it is serious. his costume is part of the, i don't want to say fairy tale of it in case kids are watching, but as that santa said, kids wiping their noses and they have a lot of exposure. it raises an important issue. there are a lot of people who work with kids this time of year who we should be remembering at a time when there are these concerns about swine flu .

    >> and who should be the priority.

    >>> just ahead, david, this is

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