Researchers at the University of Michigan’s (UM’s) School of Public Health just released the first-year findings of a study of successful non-pharmaceutical methods that might reduce the risk of developing influenza, or the flu. It seems wearing a face mask around others and frequent hand-washing throughout the day can reduce the risk of getting the flu by as much as 50%, a finding that offers particular promise to public health officials worldwide who are avidly seeking every means possible to side step the flu virus before a pandemic occurs.
A pandemic is a global outbreak of an illness, such as the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people around the world. Hospitals were overwhelmed and makeshift hospital tents were erected, in the United States and elsewhere, to treat the overflow. In the event another pandemic occurs, there are questions as to whether or not everyone everywhere could get adequate medical care in sufficient time to treat or prevent infection or for people in remote settings or in areas especially hard hit.
UM epidemiology professor, Dr. Arnold Monto, presented first-year findings at The Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy and the Infectious Diseases Society of America in Washington, DC, last weekend. The range of reduced influenza infections spread from 10% to 50% over the course of the study, conducted during the 2006-2007 flu season but Monto says the following year’s study witnessed a flu outbreak, which will undoubtedly produce different results for the second year of the study.
Using UM students as study subjects, the Monto team enlisted more than 1,000 students living in seven on-campus residence halls. The students followed a specific protocol for six weeks, reporting all flu-like symtpoms as they occurred. One group of students wore face masks identical to those used in the medical profession, a second group wore masks but also washed their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The third group made no changes to their normal routines.
Both groups taking preventive measures reported 10% to 50% fewer symptoms of the flu, which include coughing plus a second symptom, usually body aches, chills, or fever. While flu season was mild during the first year of the study, the second year was not, a situation sure to test the conclusions of the first year.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded the UM study.
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