Hands being washed

Public ‘obsessed’ with germs but don’t know when to take action

Researchers highlight need for hygiene campaign to protect public from infections.
28 November 2019 , Katie Coyne

A public-facing campaign focusing on when hygiene is important – rather than where microbes fester – is needed to reduce infection rates, according to new research.

The International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene (IFH) and the Royal Society for Public Health have identified nine moments when hygiene really matters in a new piece of work.

The two organisations have previously published work that has uncovered the public’s lack of understanding over the distinction between risk and hazard, and hygiene and cleanliness. They highlighted the confusing messages in the media that people can be ‘too clean’.

To help address this gap in knowledge it has developed the nine key moments where being hygienic is important and can prevent infection (see below).

IFH chair Sally Bloomfield said: “It’s so obvious but we have realised that the public don’t get it because the media like to create lists and tips for the public such as ‘we have found millions of germs on a chopping board, here’s how to get rid of them’. And that’s become received wisdom.

“It’s about intervening at the right time. People have become obsessed with the place and we have got to turn that around.”

Bloomfield wants to see the Government support work to raise public knowledge around this issue as part of its campaign to encourage self-care so that members of the public protect themselves from infection.

Infections have become a more pressing issue due to the higher number of people living with compromised immune systems or at more risk of infection due to conditions such as diabetes, AIDS – and old age.

An important prong of the strategy to tackle growing antibiotic resistance – prescribed by the World Health Organisation, and the UKs five-year national action plan – is to reduce the number of infections people get in the first place. This can be assisted by better hygiene at the right moment.

The full argument is laid out in Perspectives in Public Health, and expands on polling and research carried out by the RSPH and a previous IFH white paper. The polling found 98% of the public acknowledge the importance of hygiene, 50% agreed poor hygiene contributed to antibiotic resistance, with 74% believing improved hygiene can reduce the pressures on the NHS. Polling also found that many people wrongly thought that being hygienic was about removing dirt.

The nine moments when hygiene matters most:
1. During food handling
2. Whilst eating with fingers
3. Using the toilet and changing a nappy
4. Coughing, sneezing and nose blowing
5. Touching surfaces frequently touched by other people
6. Handling and laundering ‘dirty’ clothing and household linens
7. Caring for domestic animals
8. Handling and disposing of refuse
9. Caring for an infected family member

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