Confusion over basic hygiene procedures is creating an “open goal” for cold and flu viruses to infect the public, scientists are warning.
Contradictory advice over topics as simple as what temperature to wash clothes at is leading to confusion – which in turn makes it more likely that individuals will be affected by cold, flu and other viruses.
The problem has been branded ‘conflusion’ and it’s deadly serious – flu was blamed for 15,000 deaths in England and Wales last year, and UK-wide the figures were the worst for seven years.
An influential group of scientists has called for a ‘Germ Czar’ to be appointed to address growing confusion over the role microbes play in our lives – and deaths.
Their report, commissioned by the respected International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene (IFH), says a lack of leadership on the issue means the public is getting conflicting messages about germs, hygiene and best practice, and that in turn is likely to be having an impact on health, as well as NHS budgets.
But the problem is not as straightforward is it might first appear: according to the scientists, failure to maintain a diverse mix of micro-organisms in our bodies is linked to a dramatic rise in an increasing range of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, type-1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. They attribute reduced microbial exposure to lifestyle changes such as Caesarean section, bottle feeding, less sibling interaction, less time outdoors, excessive antibiotic use and altered diet.
One of the report’s authors, Professor Anthony Hilton, of Aston University School of Life & Health Sciences, said:
“The confusion around this issue is undermining public confidence in hygiene, and strategies to improve hygiene behaviour. This is not an ‘all or nothing’ challenge – it is essential we develop lifestyles which sustain exposure to the right sort of microbes, whilst at the same time protecting against those that cause disease.
“And well-founded concerns about how we cope with microbes can put policy-makers in conflict with other policy-makers. For example, washing clothes at lower temperatures saves energy – but it is also associated with reduced hygiene efficacy. Such confusion could lead to an individual contracting the flu – we call it ‘conflusion’ – and that is potentially life-threatening.”
An onslaught of messaging about other serious issues, such as the need to conserve energy and water, coupled with messaging about environmental and human health impacts of hygiene products, has made consumers increasingly concerned – and, according to the scientists, they have become sceptical about “germ risks”.
That has led to them rejecting established hygiene practices, thereby increasing their risk of infection, and fuelling what is widely viewed as a disastrous level of demand for antibiotics. Professor Hilton said:
“Because hygiene communications to the public are being developed independently, by different stakeholders and without reference to a common strategy, advice is sometimes conflicting, causing further confusion. This is compounded by ongoing messaging that ‘too much hygiene and cleanliness’ is the underlying cause of rising allergies.”
Experts have been critical of the widespread claim of a link between “too much hygiene and cleanliness” and a rise in allergic diseases. That claim, first made in 1989, is still being promoted as a key underlying cause of allergies despite lack of evidence. Professor Hilton added:
“Influencers and policy makers, as well as the public, must be educated to ensure public-facing advice is based on sound science rather than long-held but erroneous beliefs. And this needs to happen on an international scale – that’s why strong leadership on the issue is needed urgently.
“Nationally, regionally and globally we need an agency tasked with co-ordinating hygiene promotion in everyday life, providing an authoritative voice to lobby on behalf of hygiene issues against competing health issues. We are not suggesting the creation of a new agency, but that an existing agency should co-ordinate activities.”
Infections: Some facts from the IFH report
Notes to editors
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long-established research-led university known for its world-class teaching quality, and strong links to business and the professions. Aston University is located in Birmingham, at the heart of a vibrant city, and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.
Aston has been a leading university for graduate employment success for more than 25 years, and our students do extremely well in securing top jobs and careers. Our strong relationships with industry partners mean we understand the needs of employers, which is why we are ranked in the top 20 for graduate employability.
About Professor Anthony Hilton
Professor Hilton is Deputy Executive Dean of Aston’s Life & Health Sciences School. He is a Professor of Applied Microbiology, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Fellow of the Society of Biology and a Fellow of the Institute of Biomedical Science. His research interests include applied microbiology (food and clinical), molecular microbiology, Salmonella, Campylobacter, MRSA and Escherichia coli O157, Clostridium difficile. He is also an expert in molecular epidemiology and typing of microorganisms, and insect vectors of disease
About the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene
The IFH was established in 1997 to develop and promote hygiene in home and everyday life, based on sound scientific principles. It is a not-for-profit, non-commercial, registered charity (UK Charities Commission Reg No. CH 600 3131998). The IFH is unique in that it addresses hygiene from the viewpoint of the home and, more importantly, the family or household. It is dedicated to understanding the interrelated actions that family members undertake in their everyday lives to protect themselves from infectious disease:
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