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, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

Boy has ears created from ribs localisation->translate("watch"); ?>

A nine-year-old boy who was born without ears has had a pair created from his ribs.

Watch Fergus's report

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 73.

    I always wondered why women didn't want to hug or kiss me... I always thought it was because I'm ugly

    But now I know it's because they may contract swine flu !

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 72.

    Another government inspired scare story for dubious journalistic values BBC?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    Surely its common sense to wash your hands after sneezing on them? Its only the same as washing after going to the toilet. As for vaccines, the more people that have them, the better the herd immunity which helps to keep the bug at bay from people who might no be able to have the vaccine for whatever reason.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 70.

    Could it be that the 'anti-flu behaviour' is normal for people in the UK? Hence, they cannot increase it.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 69.

    I live near Toronto and am never sick. 4 weeks ago I went on business to Argentina where a few people had colds and one of our contacts was off sick. The secretary kissed everyone. The office boss had a streaming cold and everyone shook hands with everyone. A few days later I was off sick 2 days (a head cold). My background - born Yorkshire and played rugby 22 years. What does this prove?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 68.

    65.Peter_Sym


    Damn, you beat me to it - I never seem to get flu these days, although I suspect in mycase it's more to do with a childhood spent in Hong Kong and at a military boarding school back here in UK. I used to get flu at least once every winter, but only once as adult (in 2,000) & then only midly compared to everyone else.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 67.

    Coughing, or sneezing into your hands is absolutely revolting. If you don't have a tissue, then please use your elbow! It is so gross to see people wiping their hands onto their trousers after they have sneezed and then touching everything.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 66.

    #65 Good point Peter, I was merely suggesting that viruses like to mutate and adapt. Global warming, air travel, over population, poverty all conspire to accelerate the mutation process.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 65.

    #64 The explanation is too complex for 400 characters but in summary you probably have a fortunate tissue type. I've had influenza once in my life and being HLA-A2 will have made antibodies to part of the flu virus that almost never mutates so I'm protected from many variants. This is why no plague has ever wiped out 100% of humans. Our diverse tissue types help ensure some of us always survive.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 64.

    Neither I,my mother, grandmother or son have ever caught the flu. Are we just lucky, wash our hands more than usual or should our family be investigated by scientists? On a serious note people forget ordinary seasonal flu can kill, but those deaths don't get mentioned.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    I wonder how these results relate not so much to being risk averse in Mexico or Argentina but to the fact that Britons are less likely to kiss at all, restricting this behaviour to partners and perhaps offspring. Latin people kiss a lot more people, so there is more room for cutting down the kissing. To be meaningful the comparison should have been done on partners only.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 62.

    Since swine flu reminded me I always now wash my hands when I return home in case I have picked up any bugs at work on buses at supermarket etc.
    Its not magic but I think it must help against all the nasties out there new or old. And it does seem to reduce the number of colds I get.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 61.

    #59 Last year Fergus's flu blog was full of conspiracy claims about why the vaccine was taking so long to appear on the market (I can tell you BTW... glaxo bought 1M substandard glass vials which broke when filled.). If you want a vaccine for a sudden pandemic then 2 year clinical trials before release are not an option.

    A "treatment" like "tami-flu" is much more profitable than flu vaccine too

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 60.

    I get the flu vaccine routinely each year; so does my 97 year old mother. I am pleased to report that I am not writing this through a psychic; I am still here & well. But Canadians show a different pattern among ethnic groups; so there must be ethnic factors at work.
    I am also a handwasher. My philosophy: Better safe than sorry, even though I can't remember ever sneezing into my sleeve.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 59.

    Nope, sorry....they'll have to come up with something better than Swine Flu before I subject myself to a poorly tested, rushed-to-the-market vaccine which only offered limited protection, but made plenty of money for the Pharmaceutical companies.

    Swine flu? Is that the best they can do?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 58.

    #56 You've far more reason to fear flu than Ebola. Ebola can't survive a european climate & is spread by person-person contact. Its not airborne (although someone sneezing infected blood in your face might do it). Its also not terribly adapted to infecting humans. 1918 flu killed more people than the Black death & it IS airborne and is well adapted to humans.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 57.

    We've only become touchy feely hugs and kisses for all, in the last few decades so keeping ones distance is now is seen as disliking or being superior to those one meets. More TV ads and the use of 'hands off' in soap operas could be used.

    Less sex scenes without a public health warning might reduce STIs too. Or just less of them anyway -they interfere with the storyline.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 56.

    It is quite normal for viral nasties to emerge when certain environmental conditions are met. Maybe these viruses are the earth's immune response to the rapidly expanding human population, afterall, we are part of an ecosystem. Wait until ebola escapes from the congo - sneezing into your elbow won't help you then!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 55.

    "The supposed differences in behaviour between the US and UK are less easy to explain."

    Apart from the simple explanation that only one of these two has a land border with Mexico which, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, was "hit first by swine flu and there was a great deal of initial fear and uncertainty about potential danger from the virus."?

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 54.

    #52 Actually virtually all the deaths associated with Chernobyl were acute radiation sickness among the fire fighters tackling the blaze (who were exposed to huge doses). The 50 or so cancer fatalities (not 1000s) afterwards were almost exclusively thyroid caused by airborne radioactive iodine. The local food and water is pretty safe. Plenty still live near Pripyat (I'd avoid the local mushrooms!)

 

Page 1 of 4

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.