"Bishops defying swine flu advice" said the headlines recently.
Some bishops in England have recently reinstated using a shared chalice to distribute
communion wine. UK Dept of Health advice is to suspend this practice during the swine
flu outbreak to prevent the spread of this disease. I can see why chalices were identified as potentially spreading
infections but church goers should take heart because drinking wine from a
shared silver communal vessel may be safer than sharing a cup of water.
Wine kills disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Wine or beer was drunk in
the past in
preference to water when water supplies were suspect. Our ancestors knew from
trial and error that these drinks were safer. Its not just the
alcohol that can kill bacteria and viruses, phenolic compounds in wine such as resveratrol
do so as well. There is a lot of research examining this topic at the moment. I
found one very speculative paper listed on Global
Health database that suggests resveratrol could be used as part of a
treatment for flu in the absence of other treatments.
The chalices themselves may also play a part. They are often made of silver
and this also kills bacteria. Silver coated instruments are widely used in hospitals to prevent
infections and silver impregnated fabrics are being investigated as well for use
in dressings and in disinfectants.
I don't know if the combined effects of the wine and the silver are enough to prevent
diseases spreading from communion chalices but they could reduce it. There is evidence that
some bacteria do survive on chalices used in Church. I found a study listed
on Global Health that examined 15 chalices and found slightly more
than a quarter of them had contamination with disease causing bacteria. Nevertheless the
study concluded that chalices are reasonably safe if you are healthy.
Infection from the communion cup: an underestimated risk? Fiedler, K.;
Lindner, M.; Edel, B.; Wallbrecht, F.; Zentralblatt für Hygiene und
Umweltmedizin, 1998, 201, 2, pp 167-188,
activity of diluted wine on bacterial growth: the secret of water
purification in antiquity. Dolara, P.; Arrigucci, S.; Cassetta, M. I.; Fallani,
S.; Novelli, A. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents 2005 pp. 338-340
effects of wine on Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella typhimurium in
a model stomach system. Just, J. R.; Daeschel, M. A. Journal of Food Science
2003 Vol. 68 No. 1 pp. 285-290
supplement formula for influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans. Medical
Hypotheses 2006 Vol. 67 No. 3 pp. 578-587