Study: few correctly cover coughs, sneezes

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Despite our best efforts to limit the spread of germs propelled into the air when we cough or sneeze, a new study from researchers in New Zealand suggests that many of us aren’t doing a great job. As the Associated Press reports, an observational study of people in public places in the New Zealand capital of Wellington suggests that roughly three quarters of people at least make an attempt to cover coughs and sneezes, but that, unfortunately most who do just launch the bacteria onto their hands — where they can spread it by touching surfaces and other people.

The research, which presented today at a conference on infectious diseases in Atlanta, was conducted last August in the middle of the swine flu outbreak and included nearly 400 public coughs and sneezes at a shopping mall, train station and hospital. At the time, there were several public health campaigns instructing people on the most effective way to cover coughs and sneezes to limit the spread of disease — by lifting your elbow up over your face (a gesture the AP notes some refer to as “the Dracula” because it resembles the vampire drawing up his cape). Yet, the study revealed that, even in the thick of the swine flu outbreak, only 1 in 77 did so.

Instead, the majority (two thirds) of people who at least made an effort to cover up just launched the bacteria onto their hands. As study author Nick Wilson, an associate professor of public health at Otago University in Wellington, told the AP:

“When you cough into your hands, you cover your hand in virus… Then you touch doorknobs, furniture and other things. And other people touch those and get viruses that way.”

Yet, though researchers were disappointed to see so few people using the proper technique to limit the spread of disease, perhaps the most dismaying observation from the study was the collection of citizens who used public places as personal spittoons. Though they didn’t include it in the data set, researchers noted seeing several people spit on the floor — not only in the mall or train station, but at the hospital as well. The researchers’ reaction to the disgusting displays? “They were a bit grossed out,” Wilson told the AP.

Read the full AP story here.