A simple Internet programme designed to encourage handwashing could slow the spread of colds and other viruses, a new study reveals.
The service called Primit, designed by researchers at the University of Southampton, has four weekly sessions which explain medical evidence, encourage users to learn simple techniques to avoid catching and passing on viruses, monitor handwashing behaviour, and provide tailored feedback.
A randomised trial of 16,000 UK households examined the effectiveness of Primit during three winters, from January 2011 to March 2013, finding that those who used the service reported fewer gastrointestinal infections, a lower demand for GP consultations and fewer prescriptions for antibiotics.
Professor Paul Little said: "Our findings suggest that a simple, cheap Internet programme to encourage handwashing can reduce the risk of infection by around 14 per cent.
"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 NHS services during the winter months."
A total of 20,066 volunteers aged 18 and older from 344 general practices across the UK were randomly assigned either access to the Primit website or no intervention before being followed for 16 weeks.
The study, funded by the Medical Research Council and published in The Lancet, used questionnaires to measure episodes of respiratory infections, duration of symptoms, and to check whether other household members had a similar illness.
At 16 weeks, 51 per cent in the Primit group reported at least one respiratory infection compared with 59 per cent in the control group, equivalent to a 14 per cent reduction in risk.
The risk of catching a flu-like illness was about 20 per cent lower in the Primit group, and need for primary care consultations and antibiotic prescriptions were reduced by 10 to 15 per cent.
Little said: "The majority of UK 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 the strain on the NHS during a pandemic-and at very little cost to the health service."
Professor Chris van Weel, from Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands, and Australian National University, Canberra, said: "Influenza is only one of the many infectious diseases that can affect populations. An even more important point to take from this study is therefore the promotion of handwashing as a generic routine to manage transfer of infections.
"This broader applicability is the intervention's real attraction, and should be the basis of any cost-effectiveness calculation as well. In this context, the small reduction in antibiotic prescriptions should be taken into account.
"The investigators showed improved management of infections while using fewer antibiotics, which is in line with policies to counter the threat of population resistance to antibiotics."