Spread of common day care illnesses caused by misconceptions about illness transmission

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A Harvard Medical School study found that only two-thirds of parents believed that contact transmission was important for the spread of colds, and fewer than half believed it was important in the spread of stomach flus. Perhaps more surprising, fewer than half stated that changing a diaper and eating food prepared by a person with gastroenteritis were important in spreading stomach flus.

“Misconceptions about the mechanisms of illness transmission were common,” said the study’s lead author, Grace Lee, Harvard Medical School instructor in ambulatory care and prevention in the HMS Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention. “We need to educate families about the importance of hand hygiene in reducing the spread of illnesses.” Lee is also an HMS instructor in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The study measured respiratory and gastrointestinal illness transmission rates in 208 families from the metropolitan Boston area with at least one child in day care. It also surveyed these families about beliefs and practices regarding illness transmission.

“Our study also suggests that use of alcohol-based hand gels may play an important role in decreasing respiratory illness transmission in the home, ” Lee said. The study indicated a 40 percent reduction in secondary illness transmission in families who frequently used alcohol-based hand gels.

“Alcohol hand sanitizers kill most viruses that cause respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses in the home, and they are extremely convenient and portable. They also are remarkably gentle on the hands. If families understood how useful these products are, I think they would use them more often,” said Donald Goldmann, HMS professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and senior author of the study.