October 20, 2007

Wash your hands and keep viruses away...

London - Hand-washing with just soap and water is a simple and effective way to stunt the spread of respiratory viruses, from everyday cold viruses to deadly pandemic strains, researchers said on Wednesday.

Keeping hands clean is also particularly important for protecting children and to reduce the chances they could pass viruses to other family members, the researchers said.

Writing in the Cochrane Library journal, Tom Jefferson of the Rome-based Cochrane Collaboration and colleagues said they analysed 51 different clinical studies.

The findings underscore recommendations from the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention about the benefits of hand washing to limit transmission of viruses.

"Respiratory virus spread might be prevented by hygienic measures around younger children," the researchers wrote. "These might also reduce transmission from children to other household members."

Respiratory viruses usually only cause minor disease but they can spark epidemics, the researchers said. About 10 percent to 15 percent of people worldwide contract flu each year, a figure that spikes during epidemics.

Experts agree that the world is overdue for a pandemic - a global epidemic - of influenza.

There were three such pandemics in the last century, including the 1918 "Spanish flu" in which anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people died, and milder ones in 1957-58 and 1968.

Researchers cannot say which strain will strike next but the H5N1 avian flu virus now hitting flocks of birds across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe is the main suspect. Globally the H5N1 virus has killed 202 people out of 331 known cases, according to the World Health Organisation.

In their review, the multinational team said simple face masks and gloves and isolating people known to be infected are also effective ways to contain respiratory viruses.

It was also unclear whether adding chemicals that kill bacteria and viruses to soap made it any more effective at preventing transmission than normal soap, the researchers said.