April 26, 2018

Beware: Hand Sanitizers Do Not Destroy Norovirus

At the pharmacy yesterday, I was interested to see that the staff keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer at the counter. The woman in line in front of me used the sanitizer after touching the credit card machine and signing the consent statement. So a story in the New York Times about studies that showed hand sanitizers are useless against norovirus caught my eye.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study that looked at a substantial increase in novovirus illnesses in northern New England. Researchers looked at long-term care facilities in that area, trying to identify institutional risk factors for norovirus outbreaks. State health departments in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont used surveys, collecting information about facility attribvutes, routine staff use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer versus soap and water, facility cleaning practices, and occurrence of acute gastroenteritis outbreaks from December 2006 to Amarcy 2007.

Norovirus outbreaks peak in the winter months, when people are forced to spend more time together. Cruise ships, hospitals, and nursing homes usually suffer outbreaks because of the proximity of patients. The virus is extremely contagious and people can become infected through food and drink, person-to-person, and by touching contaminated surfaces.

The surveys found that of the 91 facilities that responded, 61 reported 73 outbreaks in that time frame. Of those outbreaks, 29 were confirmed norovirus. And facilities where staff were “equally or more likely to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (ABHS) than soap and water for routine hand hygiene had higher odds of an outbreak than facilities with staff less like to use ABHS.”

The moral of the story is to not become complacent when using hand sanitizer. That product is effective against some strains of the flu and many types of bacteria. But it’s important to throughly wash your hands with warm water and soap in addition to using ABHS to help prevent illness outbreaks.

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