Hand-washing, face masks may halt flu transmission

Face masks and clean hands may be key to preventing the influenza virus from spreading among family members, according to a study published online on 4 August 2009 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study, of 259 Hong Kong households, found that when family members wore face masks and minded their hand hygiene, the odds of catching the flu from an ill relative dropped by two-thirds. The key was to start taking the two measures within 36 hours of the stricken family member’s first symptoms.

The findings point to simple, inexpensive ways to curb flu transmission during both regular influenza season and during pandemics like the current swine flu (H1N1) outbreak.

Hand hygiene interventions consisted of the supply of liquid soap with instructions to wash hands after bathroom use, sneezing or coughing, and a alcohol-based hand rub, to be used whenever coming home and immediately after touching any potentially virus-contaminated surface.

The fact that hand-washing appeared effective, showed that the flu can spread via direct contact and, more indirectly, by touching virus-contaminated household objects like door handles, light switches and TV remotes.

The study was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Source: Amy Norton, Reuters Health, 03 Aug 2009

Earlier in 2009, the swine flu headlines had brought attention to the importance of handwashing. In May, the respected Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article on handwashing, complete with an instructional video. The “WSJ” handwashing technique does require a lot of water though, making it less suitable for developing countries.

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