LONDON – Catholic priests in the Diocese of Lancashire have been advised that they may need to stop providing Holy Communion and giving Mass as the World Health Organization warns of an "imminent" swine flu epidemic.
To stop the spread the virus, priests have also been advised to wear surgical masks and gloves when visiting the sick and to be cautious when using service books and sacred oils, as reported by the Lancashire Evening Post.
Patrick O'Donoghue, the Bishop of Lancaster, has stipulated that an emergency plan made during the bird flu outbreak three years ago will be updated and sent to priests.
So far, five cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United Kingdom, with more than 150 people across the world confirmed to have contracted the disease. Eight people were confirmed dead in Mexico and the United States reported its first death on Wednesday.
"It is not about frightening people, it is about giving advice to prevent the spread of infection," said the Rev. Nick Donnelly, permanent deacon in the Diocese of Lancashire and author of the emergency plan. "It is important to realize that any close contact, whether that is during mass or not, can create the risk of spreading infection."
He added that the diocese would seek advice from the government about what steps to take in the face of the virus. He also noted that any decision to stop holding mass could "be taken out of our hands."
The precaution steps are being taken as Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced on Wednesday a national shutdown of offices, private businesses, restaurants, and schools beginning Friday and through Tuesday. Few are expected to attend church on Sunday.
Donnelly has been working with Jim McManus, director of Public Health at Birmingham City Council, to create the emergency plans.
"Like any public body, we are expected to take the lead on any response to an incident like this and this plan is about ensuring everyone within the Diocese is prepared to act if they are needed to," he said.
The World Health Organization has raised the alert level to five on its six-tier system. WHO Director General Margaret Chan said "all of humanity ... is under threat."
"We do not have all the answers right now, but we will get them," Chan said Wednesday. "The biggest question right now is this: How severe will the pandemic be? All countries should immediately now activate their pandemic plans."