Medications, personal hygiene, mask-wearing and quarantines all help prevent the spread of viral infections such as the flu, and researchers now suggest that the latter three strategies should be given more attention in plans to deal with pandemics.
In an update of a 2007 study, Dr. Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group in Rome, Italy, and colleagues reviewed the results of 59 studies that looked at the effectiveness of strategies to reduce the spread of viral germs that cause respiratory diseases such as the flu and SARS. The new review appears online Sept. 22 in BMJ.
The researchers looked at studies that compared a number of strategies (quarantine/isolation, distancing sick people from healthy people through other methods, better hygiene) with other interventions, or doing nothing.
The review found that wearing gloves, gowns and masks is effective, and so is hand washing more than 10 times a day. The strategies are even more effective when people use more than one of them.
Jefferson's team also found that the highest quality studies reported that the spread of diseases can be lowered through hygiene in households and among young children.
The researchers found only limited evidence that so-called N95 facial masks, which are uncomfortable and expensive, are better than simple surgical masks.
Also, they noted that it is unclear whether people need to add antiseptics to normal soap and water.
The researchers called for national school programs to encourage hand washing and stressed that gloves, gowns, masks and isolation of certain patients are all appropriate when there's high risk that the respiratory diseases will spread.
"More resources should be invested into studying which physical interventions are the most effective, flexible and cost-effective means of minimizing the impact of acute respiratory tract infections," the study authors concluded.