Britons 'kissed through swine flu'

 
Man sneezing The survey compared behaviour during the pandemic in Britain, Argentina, Japan, Mexico and the US

Do you remember the "sneezing man in a lift" public health advert? Released during the swine flu pandemic it was aimed at promoting the "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it" message.

But a survey published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal suggests that people in Britain were far less likely to adopt simple protective measures during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 than those in Argentina, Japan, Mexico and the US.

Kissing

Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston questioned nearly 5,000 people. Just 25% of British people surveyed said they more frequently coughed or sneezed into their elbow or shoulder during the pandemic compared with 82% in Mexico and 84% in Argentina. Some 53% of Britons said they washed their hands or used hand sanitizer more frequently, compared with 89% in Argentina, and 72% in Japan and the US.

Just 2% of Britons said they avoided hugging or kissing family or friends compared with 46% of those questioned in Mexico and 21% in the US.

One of the study's authors, Dr Gillian SteelFisher said: "The wide variations between countries in our study shows that in the event of another serious outbreak of infectious disease, public perceptions have to be taken into account to best tailor and communicate policy approaches that need public support in each country."

The study did not set out to find out which of the nations was the most hygienic but rather to see whether increased handwashing and social distancing reduced H1N1 vaccination uptake. It did not, although overall vaccine rates were low in all the countries.

Studies like this clearly have limitations. These were telephone interviews with the respondents self-reporting their behaviour. Furthermore, the questions were posed several months after the end of the pandemic so recall may have been shaky.

But if the results are accurate the obvious next question is why Britons were less likely to adopt protective behaviour than other countries? There the survey doesn't help.

Mexico was hit first by swine flu and there was a great deal of initial fear and uncertainty about potential danger from the virus. So it understandable that people there took social distancing measures and personal protective behaviour more seriously than in Britain.

The supposed differences in behaviour between the US and UK are less easy to explain. It would have been helpful to have another European country to compare with the UK.

Alison Holmes, Prof of Infectious Diseases, Imperial College London told me: "This research is a good starting point but it begs the question, what next? It is vital that we reflect on how best to communicate public health messages. We need to be more scientific and understand how people make sense of recommendations."

That applies to the media as much as to the government and medical profession. I did many reports stressing the importance of basic hand hygiene - perhaps journalists need to re-think the way they present such information.

You may be asking why all this matters at all, given that the vast majority who got swine flu experienced a mild illness? It matters because there are plenty of other bugs out there that will happily hitch a ride on our skin and up our nostrils.

World record attempt

Despite all the limitations of the survey it does seem to suggest that not enough of us take hand hygiene and the health of the wider community seriously. There was a huge response to a blog I did last year about research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It suggested that one in six mobile phones is contaminated with faecal matter.

Handwashing is not a very exciting or hi-tech public health measure. It does not grab the headlines like a new wonder drug. Nonetheless it is one of the most effective means of reducing the spread of viral infections like influenza, rotavirus and norovirus, and bacterial infections that cause diarrhoeal disease. In the developing world more children die from diarrhoeal disease than HIV/Aids, malaria and measles combined.

Good and bad hygiene habits start young. That's why Global Handwashing Day on October 15th will see schools across the UK attempting the break the world record for the largest simultaneous hand hygiene lesson.

 
Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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Comments

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  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 33.

    Now you're calling it a 'pandemic'?!! Wow, 68 cases in Mexico &about 3 in Arizona, of which I was 1. Nothing beats your own immune system. But what's it all about? Terrifying people that every time the 'powers that be' shout 'be scared very very scared' we'll all line up for vaccinations. Next you'll be asking our grandmothers maiden name. NOBODY should get vaccinated for any of these scares.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 32.

    Does the report compare the percentage of people who actually got swine flu with the percentage that took extra precautions?
    While I would accept that hygiene is important, is there any evidence that the incidence of swine fever was higher in this country than in Argentina, Japan or the U.S.?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 31.

    Next week, they are asking any neutrinos that break the speed of light to Email them...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 30.

    Actually seasonal flu kills more Brits each year than the Luftwaffe managed in the whole of WW2 (about ~50,000)
    -----
    Seasonal flu kills 36,000 people every year in the U.S.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=best-way-fight-flu-inoculate-children

    The USA has 300 million souls, the UK 60 million

    Statistics are too manipulable

    Your stats say we have 700% more deaths than the USA

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    26.Steve

    Yet I am willing to bet you'd be the first person to be outraged (assuming you survived) a health crisis if the authorities hadn't given warnings because they weren't exactly sure...???

    We the public will be the death of ourselves through our collective stupidity.....

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 28.

    Bill Bryson: "Do you know that there isn't even an equivalent in American speech for 'taking the p***'?"

    Sums it up really. Don't get me wrong, I like our cousins yon side of the Atlantic, but their cheeriness lacks resilience in the face of things like this.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 27.

    In answer to some previous correspondents, no-one - including the medics - knew how serious any flu epidemic might be. Better, surely, to overstress precautions and discover they hadn't been necessary - than not to bother, and then find ourselves in the middle of an epidemic. "Prepare for the worst" is a pretty good motto where disease is concerned.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 26.

    As usual a study tells us nothing we common folk don't already know, and we generally know it better! In this country we are constantly bombarded with dire health scares that threaten to wipe us out and yet come to nothing. The only reaction I saw to swine flu was a good old British one: people taking the mickey and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Can't scare us like you can the Yanks!!

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 25.

    The made-up "Swine Flu" threat was probably just neoliberal governments trying to distract the Plebs from the real stories (banking etc).

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 24.

    Just goes to show how few people are taken in by the string of hysterical gloom and doom peddled by unscientific do-gooders...

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 23.

    1. penguin337
    My parents and/or grandparents survived scarlet fever, tuberculosis, tetanus, diptheria, measles, mumps, typhoid, spanish flu, world war 1 world war 2, the great depression, no antibiotics, cholera, malaria, flying bombers from 1939 to 1945(now THAT's risky),


    --
    Actually seasonal flu kills more Brits each year than the Luftwaffe managed in the whole of WW2 (about ~50,000)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 22.

    The only change we need to make is on-the-spot fines plus a public change of attitude towards the young blokes who spit like they're afraid of their own saliva, you see it at bus stops and anywhere they sit out in public.

    The rest is an over-reaction to sell vaccines and I for one am grateful we didn't see the stark fear "OMG I've got a sore throat!" I saw on A LOT, not a few, US-based websites.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 21.

    The issue we have with public health in Britain is how stupid we Brits are when we act collectively.....

    .....when we have public health scares that turn out to have been overplayed instead of saying "wow, that's good news, good job the authorities are looking out for us just in case" we instead tend to say "they don't know what they are talking about" & ignore further advice....

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    #1 Well, obviously your grandparents survived long enough to reproduce (and then eventually die of something). It's the ones that didn't we are concerned about. They tend not to post many comments on web forums.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    As with kissing, so with handwashing! If 60% of Britons wash their hands/use sanitiser already (as they probably do) then a 53% increase makes over 80%, how many people in the other countries mentioned wash their hands as frequently, does anyone know? And what is the percentage now. It's no good just doing it when there is a pandemis, it has to be a habit. I haven't had flu for 40 years.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 18.

    Obviously I haven't read the report, but it seems to have been about perceptions rather than facts. As has been pointed out, the British don't kiss a lot of people and the ones they do they tend to share a house with. I think it would have been better to have compared number of people kissed vs. infections.

    Also I tend to try to be hygenic all the time, not just when there is a scare on.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    Different nations react differently, behaviour is as much cultural as medical. For example here in Thailand picking your nose in public is acceptable, picking your teeth is not. Here if there is an outbreak of flu many wear face masks, yet they still eat and drink from communal bowls, it is a sign of friendship to offer someone a drink from your glass, bad manners to refuse.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 16.

    " Just 25% of British people surveyed said they more frequently coughed or sneezed into their elbow or shoulder during the pandemic"

    I think that if they had asked the question whether they had sneezed into cupped hands or a hanky LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE then it would have had the Brits coming out with a higher percentage than most of the rest of the world.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 15.

    @2.Mark
    The disgusting habit of public spitting is common place ...

    I totally agree. It's actually still an offense to spit on the footpath in England, but sadly something that's nearly impossible to enforce.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 14.

    I do not see really that it makes any difference , we come into such close contact every day with so many people if we are going to catch one of these flu like problems then so be it But yes WASH and keep CLEAN and be HYGIENIC that is all you can do !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

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