London: A web-based programme to encourage more frequent hand washing reduces the risk of catching and passing on respiratory tract infections to other household members, a study of 16,000 British households revealed.
Users of the programme, called PRIMIT, also reported fewer gastrointestinal infections, a lower demand for consultations with their doctors, and fewer antibiotic prescriptions.
"Our findings suggest that a simple, cheap internet programme to encourage hand washing can reduce the risk of infection by around 14 percent," said lead author professor Paul Little from the University of Southampton, England.
PRIMIT is a free-access, interactive, web-based programme.
"Because most of the population catches coughs, colds, sore throats and other respiratory infections, this could have an important impact on reducing the spread of these viruses in the general population, and also help reduce the pressure on National Health Service (NHS) during the winter months," Little added.
The programme has four weekly sessions which explain medical evidence, encourage users to learn simple techniques to avoid catching and passing on viruses, monitor hand washing behaviour, and provide tailored feedback.
Across three winters from January 2011 to March 2013, in the midst of the season for flu and other respiratory infections, researchers enrolled 20,066 individuals aged 18 years and older from 344 general practices across Britain.
After 16 weeks, the risk of catching a flu-like illness was about 20 percent lower in the PRIMIT group compared to the control group, and need for primary care consultations and antibiotic prescriptions were also reduced by 10-15 percent in these individuals.
"The majority of British households now have access to the internet, and it has become a central source of health information in a pandemic. Because of this, PRIMIT could play an important role in reducing the spread of flu -- and at very little cost to the health service," Little added.
The study was published in The Lancet medical journal.