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Britons sniffy about flu protection

International survey reveals people in Britain lagged far behind other countries when it came to protecting themselves from the swine flu virus
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
man coughing

5th October 2012 - An international survey has revealed that during the swine flu pandemic in 2009, people in Britain lagged far behind other countries in adopting protective behaviours. These included covering their mouth with a tissue when sneezing or washing their hands more frequently.

Researchers questioned 4,511 people across five countries: Argentina, Japan, Mexico, US and the UK about the habits they adopted to protect themselves from the H1N1 swine flu virus. They were asked about increased hand washing; social distancing behaviours such as avoiding hugging or kissing; and if they would support government recommendations.

The study is published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Catch it, Bin it, Kill it

The research took place at the end of 2010, well after the publication of the 'Catch it, Bin it, Kill it' adverts which ran from November 2008 to April 2009. Despite the campaign researchers found nearly three quarters (73%) of British people surveyed admitted that they did not cover their mouth or nose with a tissue more frequently when coughing or sneezing during the pandemic, and just under half (47%) of British people did not wash their hands or use hand sanitiser more frequently.

By contrast, almost four fifths (77%) of Mexicans made increased efforts to cover their mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, and in all other countries surveyed, at least two thirds of people said that they washed their hands more frequently.

All in all people in the UK were least likely to adopt any behaviour.

The researchers also examined if people supported government recommendations to avoid crowds, close school or wear masks. In most countries, approval of these recommendations was fairly high, but Britons responded less enthusiastically, with around half of respondents saying they would not have approved of government policies to avoid public places or wear a mask in public.

Typically British?

Professor Alison Holmes of the Centre for Infection Prevention and Management, Imperial College London, told us via e-mail: "We cannot comment on national characteristics... however it is important to understand what messages work in public health and why they influence behaviour or not.

"Further work on this is now needed for us to have a greater understanding of national behaviours and responses, which can further inform public health messages and communications."

She says establishing which protective behaviours are effective is not enough. She says organisations have to understand how populations make sense of any recommendations.

Dr Gillian SteelFisher, one of the study's authors, agrees. In a press release she says: "The wide variations between countries in our study shows that in the event of another serious outbreak of infectious disease, public perceptions have to be taken into account to best tailor and communicate policy approaches that need public support in each country."

Reviewed on October 05, 2012

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