Internet handwashing intervention reduces respiratory infections

By Bianca Nogrady
An internet-delivered home intervention aimed at encouraging handwashing has shown a small but significant reduction in respiratory tract infections.

The automated web-based intervention monitored handwashing behaviour, provided tailored feedback to users, and worked to maximise handwashing intentions by reinforcing helpful attitudes and addressing negative beliefs.

Among the 10,040 individuals randomised to the intervention, there was a significant 14% reduction in the number of individuals reporting one or more episodes of respiratory tract infection after 16 weeks, compared with the control group of 10,026 individuals who did not access the intervention.

The study, which was carried out during three English winters, also showed reductions in the severity and duration of infections among those who did get sick, according to a paper published in The Lancet.

Individuals in the intervention group also reported slightly less antibiotic use compared with controls.

There was a slight increase in minor self-reported skin irritation among the intervention group, but no other adverse events reported.

‘Our study findings inform the debate about the relevance of hand-to-face contact in infection transmission, suggesting that both transmission to and from household members is prevented,’ the authors wrote.

Commenting on the study, Dr Ian Barr said the take home message was pretty clear; that it is possible to change people’s habits no matter how old and ingrained these habits may be.

‘It’s an interesting study that has some positive outcomes, and even though the reductions are small, they are significant when spread out over a whole population,’ said Dr Barr, Acting Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Melbourne.

He noted that the average age of the study population was 56 years, and only 17 to 18% of either group had children younger than 16 years living in the household.

‘They’ve given themselves a harder task to show an effect in a group of people who is probably very set in their ways, with not so many children and yet they’ve still shown some benefit at the end of it all,’ Dr Barr told Medicine Today. ‘Young children are very important in terms of spreading infections, so if you can intervene in some of their habits or your interactions with those children you might have an even better chance of reducing respiratory infections.’

Lancet 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60127-1.

Picture credit: © MAST3R/Dollar Photo Club.