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Stopping flu starts with children

May 13, 2009 | 10:20 am

Surveys show people are going to fairly great lengths to avoid infection with H1N1 influenza. But a review of scientific evidence published Tuesday shows the best way to curb respiratory illnesses is to keep little hands clean. Very little hands. And very clean.

Sneeze Scientists at the Cochrane Library reviewed 51 studies that examined various ways to contain respiratory virus epidemics, such as flu outbreaks. They found that frequent hand washing; using gloves, gowns and masks with filtration, and isolating sick people were all effective measures. But the tactic with the biggest impact was concentrating on children's hygiene.

"The evidence in children is clear. Hand washing offers protection against a lot of things, not just respiratory viruses," the lead author of the report, said Dr. Tom Jefferson, of the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group in Rome, in a news release. "Acting on children is probably the best, most effective intervention."

One large study cited in the review involved 4,332 children in Pakistan. Children who washed their hands several times a day with plain or antibacterial soap had 50% fewer episodes of respiratory illness compared with children with standard hygiene practices. Another study found that children who used alcohol hand gels in conjunction with hand washing had a 43% lower rate of absenteeism at school.

Flu is thought to be transmitted from young children to older children and adults. Thus, cleaning up those little buggers' hands might go a long way toward keeping everyone healthy. Parents should teach their young children how to wash their hands properly, and parents and teachers should work together to implement hand-washing routines at school, the authors said.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Peter Adams / For The Times