SAO PAULO (CNS) — Due to the swine flu outbreak in several parts of Brazil, parishes all over the country have adopted changes in liturgical practices. These changes include suspending hand-held prayers by the congregation and the traditional sign of peace and placing the Eucharist in the parishioners’ hands instead of in their mouths during Communion.

“This is a way the church can (support) the health of its parishioners,” said Archbishop Paulo Mendes Peixoto of Uberaba.

All across the country, parish priests are being told to allow church windows and doors to remain open for greater air circulation during the day and especially during Masses, when a greater number of people are gathered together.

Although swine flu is not uncommon in Brazil, this year doctors say the number of reported cases is much higher than in previous years and that the outbreak started in late January, the middle of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, instead of June, the beginning of the winter season.

Bishop Dario Campos of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim told his 42 parishes to take extra precautions to avoid contamination.

“We live (in) an alarming moment with the outbreak of the H1N1 (swine flu) in our state. We believe that during the winter period, measures can be taken to inhibit the spread among the population,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Belo Horizonte has asked priests to substitute a moment of silence for the sign of peace and to keep the holy water font dry for the time being. Priests also are encouraged to discuss how to avoid contamination.

In the state of Sao Paulo, where, according to Brazil’s Health Ministry, most swine flu cases have been reported and 55 of the 61 deaths due to the virus occurred, parishes implemented the changes as soon as the first cases were reported. In some cases, Catholic churches were used by state officials as vaccination sites to help immunize the population.

Bishop Vilson Dias de Oliveira of Limeira took action in April, soon after the first registered death by swine flu was confirmed in the town. He instructed priests to clean hands with water and gel alcohol before and after distributing Communion and asked parishioners to raise their hands or keep them by their sides, instead of holding hands.

Even the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, visited by Pope Francis in 2013 during his visit to Brazil, released a note stating that greetings between the faithful during Mass celebrations were suspended to prevent transmission of the swine flu virus. According to the statement, signed by Father Dominic Savio da Silva, rector of the sanctuary, the distribution of the Eucharist will be into hands until further notice.