CONCORD, N.H. — 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 that 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 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.
Janice Curtin, senior manager of marketing for Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto, said the health and safety of all visitors is a top priority.
To that end, Curtin said hand sanitizer is available to children and adults waiting in line to visit Santa at the mall. She also hopes parents will follow public health guidelines for keeping children at home when they have cold and flu symptoms.
Curtin said there's no reason for valley parents to rush sick kids to the mall to visit Santa. He'll be there until Christmas Eve, she promised, so there's time to get over a cold or flu and still see him.
Besides, Curtin said, the jolly old fellow is used to dealing with runny noses and such because his peak public relations season coincides with the annual cold-and-flu season.
As for whether Santa wants an H1N1 vaccination before working the Vintage Faire crowd, Curtin would only say that he's in good physical condition and ready to hear Christmas wishes.
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, the same as 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.
"It's a delicate balance here. This is not an exercise in health care. This is visiting Santa," he said.
Berger estimates that about two-thirds of the nation's Santas are overweight, and about a third are morbidly obese.
That raises health concerns because some research has suggested that obesity could be a risk factor for severe swine flu.
Weight can be a factor in 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 because heavy people tend to have asthma and other conditions that make them more susceptible.
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."
Scheuch, executive director of Santa America, has taken 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."