Battle of the bugs

In the US, bird-flu panic has spawned a whole new market in gadgets designed to keep infectious germs at bay. Now they're coming here. But can they really protect us? Katy Guest investigates
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Professor John Oxford is a fan of the Greek goddess Hygieia. As a professor of virology at Barts and the London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine, he follows her teachings on health, cleanliness and sanitation almost religiously. "You could have all the money of Croesus, but it is not much good if you catch an infection and fall down," he says, wisely.

In 18th-century England they put it slightly differently, but the principle remains the same. "Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness," said the Methodist preacher John Wesley.

It's a good job, then, that the 21st-century world is so fastidious. Disinfectant spray, vacuum-packed cleaning fluids, all those handy little antiseptic wipes - we must be closer to Godliness than ever.

Wesley would be thrilled to hear that the global antibacterial market is worth billions of dollars. Hygieia would have her own personal air-purifier to take on aeroplanes, and would use silver-impregnated gloves on the Tube. Dozens of these things have been imported to the UK, and the demand continues to soar.

Problem is, we are no cleaner than we ever were. This is a paradox. The American market for substances and gadgets that keep the public as far away as possible from ghastly germs is growing all the time. And, as we know, when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold. Unless of course we remember to suck on enough antibacterial throat lozenges.

One bacteria buster already winging its well-scented way across the Atlantic is the City Mitt. It was invented by career girl Emily Beck, who had moved to New York City from the pine-fresh, wide-open spaces of Aspen, Colorado.

On arrival, she had a horrible but life-changing experience. "The subway was a new phenomenon," she says, clearly shocked by the revelation. "It was the middle of summer. I grabbed the subway pole - and I slid down it." Beck noticed that practised New Yorkers were all balancing carefully, trying not to touch the grubby pole, so off she went and invented the City Mitt, a glove consisting of a "brand new antimicrobial microfilter embedded with silver ions".

Her intended customers were New Yorkers, but she has sold them to people from Arizona to Belgium. "People are buying them for use at the gym and gas stations, and for grocery shopping," she says. As we speak, she's off to post some to London.

Grocery shopping, apparently, is a hazard. That's what drove Sandra Barbor, a 60-year-old housewife from Illinois, to invent the Sani-Shopping Cover. It protects fingers from the sullied trolleys of potentially mucky fellow shoppers, and has sold 1,000 online at $3.49 (about £1.75) each. There's also the Excuse Me flag ("You don't have to touch anybody or talk to anybody in New York") and the SteriPEN, which disinfects tap-water.

The most bizarre item has to be the Hyso. Its inventor, Simon Sassoon, nephew of the hairdresser Vidal (but no relation to Siegfried, who could have done with antimicrobial handwash in the trenches), says his idea came to him in a dream. The $60 gadget - its name an acronym for Cantonese words meaning "happy hands" - sprays disinfectant on the doorknobs of public washrooms every 15 minutes. "There is a tremendous 'ick' factor when it comes to doorknobs," Sassoon insists. "I felt I had found my calling."

So, will happy hands be applauding the introduction of the Hyso in this country? Experts at Dettol think not. Helen Powell, the company's UK brand manager, tries to be diplomatic on the subject; in a survey, three-quarters of people were aware of the need to improve hygiene, "but they weren't necessarily doing it," she says.

Put it this way: 65 per cent of Britons admitted that they did not wash their hands regularly. And, in a statistic that might give Gordon Ramsay pause for thought, a Food Standards Agency survey found that one-third of caterers did not wash their hands after going to the toilet.

"You can have knee-operated taps or any gadgets you like," points out Dr Lisa Ackerley, a consultant in food and environmental hygiene, "but if people don't put their hands under them and give them a wash, they are absolutely no use at all."

Why don't the British seem to get it? One theory, posited in The New York Times, is that Americans are actually afraid of something else. "Marketers are adept at tapping into Americans' sense that they are living in a very dangerous time and place and selling them, at relatively low cost, a feeling of protection," says Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Is it a coincidence, the Times asks, "that at the same places where Americans most fear terrorism - airplanes, schools, mass transit, water supplies and computers - they also fear germs?"

If the theory is right, we may soon see its effects creeping over the pond. "America is definitely one step ahead," says Ceris Burns, marketing manager for Kennedy Hygiene, a company that sells products to public facilities. "They are aiming for the no-touch washroom. It is almost paranoia. In America, we sell a toilet-seat sanitiser wipe, and people are actually buying it to sanitise supermarket trolley handles."

However, Burns feels that the crossover to Britain is limited so far. "The no-touch soap dispenser is not massively popular with the UK market. Eighteen months ago we launched a no-touch feminine hygiene bin, but in the UK it is pedal-operated, as opposed to infrared. People are much more aware, though, when there is a lot of information in the media about MRSA [drug-resistant bacteria] and that kind of thing. And we find that more and more people are looking for these kinds of products to use in their own homes."

One product that does seem to have caught on here is the Minimate. Costing £99, it is a personal air-filter that hangs around the neck, creating a virus, bacteria and pollutant-free field around the mouth, nose and eyes - the main entry points for disease. "Most people who buy them have already got an air filter in their house," says David Watt, managing director at Breathing Space. "They want to be protected on trains, undergrounds, planes, doctors' waiting rooms - places where the air is constantly recirculated and everyone else's germs are circulated, too. When bird flu first appeared, we had a flurry of calls. It was definitely on people's minds."

According to Professor Oxford, though, you don't necessarily need a £99 device to combat bird flu, MRSA, Sars and other diseases. Just as in Hygieia's day, it's much simpler.

"I've come to appreciate that respiratory viruses such as influenza and common colds can be given a serious knock on the head by increasing basic hygiene levels," he says. "Increased hygiene will be the cornerstone of the Government's plans against H5N1 [bird flu]. The etiquette of coughing now is into your arm, not your hand. Colds and Sars are transmitted about 50/50 by airborne infection and contact."

So, if Hygieia and John Wesley were around today, they'd probably shake Professor Oxford warmly by the hand - but they'd make sure they had a good wash straight afterwards.

Everything you didn't want to know about bacteria, but probably should...

* There are 40 million cells of bacteria in one gram of soil. There are five million trillion trillion bacteria in the world. Or thereabouts.

* There are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies, most of which reside in the large intestine.

* The NHS spends £1bn a year to treat hospital-acquired infections.

* British train and Tube stations could soon follow their counterparts in Hong Kong by being sprayed with disinfectant to combat the spread of colds and flu. A non-toxic disinfectant called nano silver-titanium dioxide has been developed to kill a wide range of bacteria, viruses and mould, including the H1N1 flu virus.

* Antibacterial products are a billion-dollar-a-year industry in America.

* In 1988, a hand-sanitising gel was introduced in the medical profession. In 1997, it went on sale in America as Purrel.

* Bacteria grow and divide every 20 minutes, so that in 24 hours a single cell can become more than eight million cells.

* In a recent Dettol survey, 65 per cent of British people admitted to not regularly washing their hands.

* 3 per cent of men thought that avoiding kissing and close physical contact was the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs in the home. Women considered this method of germ control to be irrelevant.

* Asked where they thought most germs were found in the home, 62 per cent of those aged under 18 replied "around the toilet basin", paying less heed to kitchen surfaces (8 per cent), door handles (18 per cent) or on their hands (12 per cent).

* According to Dr Lisa Ackerley, consultant in food and environmental hygiene and a member of the newly formed UK Hygiene Council, a recent survey found that many public toilets were cleaner than kitchen work-surfaces. Nine out of 20 public toilets showed no detectable bacteria, but the same could not be said for kitchens.

* The main sources of bacteria in the home are people, pets, food and water.

* The average fridge contains more bacteria than the average toilet.

* Heating is a good way to kill germs. The higher the temperature the more germs are killed. Cleaning cloths and linens should be laundered at 60C.

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