Cleanliness is godliness – Washing hands and wearing masks could block bird flu

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Many governments are stocking up on vaccines and antiviral drugs to reduce the spread of respiratory infections, such as avian influenza and SARS, but a new review suggests that simpler, cheaper measures also have a role to play.

A worldwide review of 51 previous studies, published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that simple infection-control measures can be very effective in preventing the spread of respiratory infections, at a fraction of the cost of drug treatment.

The scientists looked at the ability of combined public health measures such as personal hygiene, distancing, and barriers (for instance masks, gowns and gloves) to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.

The results found that wearing masks, gloves and gowns, along with frequent hand washing – particularly in children – can cut the transmission of respiratory viruses. Separately, these measures have been shown to impede the spread of SARS, with estimates of effect ranging from 55% to 91%. “In fact, combining these measures may be more effective than prescribing antiviral drugs in the event of a pandemic,” says the study.

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