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Hand sanitizer? Think again Print E-mail
Written by Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer   
September 25, 2010 05:00 am

Well, I made it three weeks into the new school year before catching a cold. It was only a matter of time, since I’ve been spending the first hour or so of the day volunteering in my daughter’s second-grade class.

It’s true what they say: No good deed goes unpunished.

I noticed at the beginning of the week that several students in the classroom were sniffling, sneezing and coughing. I merely attributed it to fall-triggered allergies. Wishful thinking on my part, I guess. Deep inside I knew it could be more than allergies, so I religiously washed my hands with soap and water each day, and used hand sanitizer whenever possible. The effort failed miserably.

The whole experience has left me wondering: Just how effective are those hand sanitizers?

The schools distributed bottles of the magic potion throughout classrooms last year (with hopes of staving off the H1N1 flu), and workplaces encourage employees to use them often. However, a Los Angeles Times story recently questioned the effectiveness of sanitizers such as Purell and Germ-X.

According to the story, new research has found that alcohol-based hand sanitizers aren’t really effective at warding off the flu or even the common cold.

Ah, man! Next they will be telling us there’s no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy.

If the presence of all those alcohol-based hand sanitizers makes you feel safe from disease, read no further.

The Times story reported that new research out of the University of Virginia finds that hand sanitizers are of no particular use in warding off the flu. They also failed to ward off rhinovirus, a major cause of the common cold. The results of the research were presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Boston. Ironically, the study was funded by the Dial Corp., which makes hand sanitizers and old-school soap.

The story read: “The researchers, led by Dr. Ronald Turner, tested the sanitizers in real-world conditions. They asked 116 volunteers to carry around a sanitizer with ‘enhanced antiviral activity’ and use it every three hours while they were awake. Another group of 96 volunteers followed their usual routines. Researchers tracked them for 10 weeks, collecting specimens once a week to test for flu and rhinovirus. Additional samples were taken whenever a study participant complained of cold or flu-like symptoms.

“It turned out that sanitizer users developed 12 flu infections per 100 volunteers, compared with 15 cases of flu per 100 volunteers in the group that didn’t do anything special. In addition, there were 42 cases of rhinovirus per 100 volunteers among the sanitizer users, versus 51 for the control group. Neither difference was statistically significant.”

The conclusion: Hand transmission is less important for these viruses than previously thought.

Perhaps public health officials and the public, including me, should pay more attention to how these viruses spread through the air via coughing and sneezing.

Perhaps my wife and daughter were right: The best way to stop spreading the cold or flu virus is to cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing – with my the crook of my arm, not my hands.

No better time than now to get in the habit. But first, pass me that hand sanitizer.

 

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