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UK population took fewest steps to prevent spread of swine flu

Study of five countries shows UK adopted least more hygienic practices during 2009 pandemic

Friday, 05 October 2012

Fewer people in the UK adopted more hygienic behaviour during the swine flu pandemic of 2009, according to a survey carried out in five countries.

Harvard researchers asked 900 people in each of five countries - the UK, the US, Argentina, Japan and Mexico - how they had modified their personal behaviour to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

People in the UK  were found to be the least likely to take extra care about coughs and sneezes, hand washing, travelling on public transport, and keeping away from people with flu symptoms, according to the results published today online in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Only 27% of people in the UK said they had covered their mouth or nose with a tissue more frequently when sneezing or coughing, compared with 61% in the US, 77% in Mexico, 64% in Argentina and 48% in Japan.

Just over half (53%) of people in the UK said they had washed their hands more frequently, compared with 72% in the US and Japan, 86% in Mexico and 89% in Argentina.

Only 2% of people in the UK said they had avoided hugging or kissing members of their family or friends during the pandemic, compared with 46% in Mexico, 21% in the US and 19% in Argentina.

Just 21% of people in the UK took any steps to avoid being near someone with flu-like symptoms compared with 56% in the US, 53% in Mexico, 43% in Argentina, and 35% in Japan. Eleven per cent of Britons travelled on public transport less often during the pandemic, compared with 51% in Mexico, 35% in Argentina, 24% in Japan, and 16% in the US.

People in the UK were also among the least likely to get vaccinated against flu: 19% of people in the UK got vaccinated compared to 27% in the US, 33% in Mexico, 25% in Japan. Only fewer received the vaccine in Argentina - 16%.

Lead researcher Dr Gillian SteelFisher, from the Harvard School of Public Health in the US, said: "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.”

Professor Alison Holmes, from Imperial College London, said: "Establishing which protective behaviours are effective is not sufficient – we need to understand how populations make sense of recommendations and adopt them."

Prof Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich School of Medicine, said: “During future epidemics more attention should be given to persuading people to adopt behaviours less likely to spread disease.”

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