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Dude, wash your hands!

September 11, 2009 |  6:00 am

HandsMessages to reach college students about the importance of proper hygiene to prevent flu outbreaks probably isn't working, according to a new study. Already this fall, several colleges and universities have been flattened by the H1N1 (swine) flu pandemic. Swine flu has already been reported at 149 of 204 schools. Washington State University has experienced one of the harshest outbreaks, with at last 2,500 students seeking healthcare for flu-like symptoms.

In the new study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers observed student compliance with hand hygiene recommendations at the height of a suspected norovirus outbreak at a university in Ontario, Canada. Only 17.4% students followed proper hand-hygiene protocols -- such as washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. But a whopping 83% of the students said they were complying with proper hand hygiene advice.

"Typically, health officials put up posters and signs and rely on self-reporting to determine whether these methods are effective," said a co-author of the report, Ben Chapman, of North Carolina State University, in a news release. "And people say they are washing their hands more. But, as it turns out, that's not true."

Chapman says the information aimed at students has to be compelling in order to get them to change their behavior. He suggests officials use practical ideas, such as posters that point students to the nearest hand sanitizer unit. Posters and brochures should use language that kids use, he adds. Don't say "gastrointestinal illness" when you could say, "this bug will make you puke your guts out."

"If your audience consists of students," he said. "You should use media that students use."
-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: PR Newswire