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16 September 2003

Another US airport travel hazard - dirty hands

American Society for Microbiology survey reveals that as many as 30% of travellers don't wash hands after using public lavatories at airports

Results of the survey, announced yesterday at the 43rd Annual Interscience Conference of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC), show that many people still aren't washing their hands in public places, exposing others to the risk of infection, despite recent outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Although illnesses as deadly as SARS and as troublesome as the common cold or gastric distress can be spread by hand-to-hand contact, the survey, sponsored by the American Society of Microbiology (ASM), found that many people passing through major US airports don't wash their hands after going to the toilet. More than 30% of people using lavatories in New York airports, 19% of those in Miami's airport and 27% of air travellers in Chicago aren't stopping to wash their hands. The survey, conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide in August 2003, observed 7541 people in public lavatories in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami and Toronto.

In contrast to airports in the United States, the vast majority of travellers using the airport lavatories in Toronto, Canada - a city that experienced a major SARS outbreak - washed almost every time.

US airport observations contrast sharply with an August 2003 Wirthlin telephone survey of 1000 Americans, in which 95% claimed that they wash their hands in public lavatories. The same phone survey - which found that only 58% of people say they wash their hands after sneezing or coughing and only 77% say they wash their hands after changing a nappy - highlights the seriousness of the problem.

In a similar Wirthlin survey conducted in 2000 for ASM, 95% reported they always wash their hands with only 67% observed washing their hands (based on 7836 adults). A 1996 Wirthlin survey showed that 94% of people claiming to always wash their hands, with only 68% actually observed doing so (based on 6333 adults).

Spurred by the latest findings, the ASM is redoubling its educational efforts, launching the "Take Action: Clean Hands Campaign" - a national initiative to educate Americans about health risks associated with poor hand-washing habits.

"Although hand washing seems like such a little thing, it could really have a powerful impact on the way we manage the spread of infectious disease and newer public health threats like SARS and the Norwalk virus responsible for cruise ship illness," said Dr Judy Daly, the ASM Secretary and Director of the Microbiology Laboratories, Primary Children's Medical Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. "The same people that fail to wash after using restrooms go on to pick up children, handle food, greet family and use the other public facilities. Hand washing can be instrumental in controlling the spread of common and more serious infections," says Dr Daly.

Dr Donald Low, Chief of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Toronto and Toronto's Mt Sinai Hospital, one of the lead investigators of the Toronto SARS outbreak, said he wasn't surprised by either the almost universal hand washing at Toronto's airport, or the low levels in other cities. "The message about the importance of hand washing was put out every day here," he said. "And not just because of SARS - hand washing is the smart thing to do. It should be second nature for all of us."

DR Low, who said that he is sure the hand-washing rate in Toronto prior to the SARS outbreak was similar to that in other cities, notes that that "it's such a simple, basic important tool to prevent disease transmission. Yet people ignore this step again and again. It's even been shown that health care workers don't wash their hands between patients."



 
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