Study challenges hand-sanitiser use

The use of hand-sanitisers in classrooms did not reduce school sick leave in children, Dunedin-led research published in an academic journal found.

The study, led by Associate Prof Patricia Priest, of the Dunedin School of Medicine's department of preventive and social medicine and involving 68 primary schools in Dunedin, Invercargill, and Christchurch, has been published in PLOS Medicine. 

A Dunedin principal involved in the study told the Otago Daily Times yesterday it prompted the school to permanently install the hand sanitisers, and the findings would not change his decision.

Over two winter terms in 2009, schools in the tested group used sanitisers installed in the classroom.

They were asked to use them after coughing or sneezing, and on the way out of the classroom for morning break or lunch.

Researchers measured absences in the group using an alcohol-based steriliser, compared with a control group.

Children in both groups were given a 30-minute lesson on hand-washing.

In the 2443 children whose caregivers were asked about their absences, the rate of absence was similar across both groups.

''Moreover, among these children, the provision of a hand sanitiser did not reduce the number of absences due to a specific illness [respiratory or gastrointestinal], the length of illness and length of absence from school, or the number of episodes in which at least one other family member became ill.''

The researchers warned the study's finding could be skewed by the fact it was undertaken during a flu pandemic, when public health messages about hand-washing were prominent.

Just how much the public health campaign affected the study findings was unknown, Prof Priest told the Otago Daily Times yesterday.

''You have to decide how likely you think it is that the messaging that was going on at the time would significantly and in a sustained way increase children's hand-washing in a way that would reduce their illnesses to a point where there was no further benefit [from hand sanitiser].''

Green Island School principal Steve Hayward said the school kept the dispensers after taking part in the 2009 research, and they believed it had reduced absences.

''We thought it was so valuable, we've carried it on.''

For Mr Hayward, the main thing was getting the children into the habit of sterilising their hands, which was especially important if they had forgotten to wash them.

eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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