Cheap and simple hygiene precautions are the most potent of all control measures against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), according to new research.
A study by US scientists suggests that simple hospital-wide measures – such as ensuring that healthcare workers in hospitals wash their hands regularly and wear masks – are more effective than patient-specific measures such as quarantine, in curbing the spread of infectious diseases for which there is no treatment or vaccine.
The findings have significant implications for all countries but are particularly relevant to developing nations with limited resources.
“New, untreatable infectious diseases pose a growing risk as globalisation continues to lead to unprecedented human mobility," says one of the researchers, James Lloyd-Smith of the University of California, Berkeley.
"Our study examined priorities and trade-offs – how one measure can compensate for another which isn’t available in a given setting – between alternative strategies of disease control.”
Healthcare workers accounted for a large proportion of SARS cases worldwide, making up more than half of cases in Hanoi, Vietnam and Toronto, Canada.
The new research, which is published in the journal Proceedings: Biological Sciences found that in every scenario examined, a breakdown in general infection control was more damaging to efforts to contain SARS than shortcomings in any other transmission-reducing measure.
The scientists say that a combination of hospital-wide precautions and isolation of known SARS patients is always the preferable course of action. But for countries that cannot afford the latter, stringent contact precautions alone can be an effective substitute.