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Government advice to beat bird flu: Wash your hands more frequently

Sir Liam Donaldson will warn that clean hands are the best defence against the threatened flu pandemic and regular use of the alcohol rub could save millions of lives from other hospital infections.

A global campaign to improve hand hygiene is to be launched in 12 countries around the world today. Doctors fear that, when a flu pandemic strikes, hospitals will be overwhelmed and could become breeding grounds for the disease as it is transmitted between patients and medical staff.

Speaking before leaving for Geneva to launch the campaign at the headquarters of the World Health Organisation, Sir Liam said the threat of bird flu was one of his greatest concerns.

"It does keep me awake at night. It is not a matter of if a pandemic happens but of when," he said.

Fears about avian flu were raised last week by David Nabarro, newly-appointed as a UN co-ordinator for avian and human influenza, who said the next pandemic could claim from five million to 150 million lives.

It depends on the avian flu virus which has so far infected more than 100 people in the Far East killing more than half of them, mutating so it spreads among the human population.

Dr Nabarro called on political leaders to take immediate action to halt a human pandemic, warning that the higher death figure would result if governments failed to act now.

Sir Liam, who chairs the World Alliance for Patient Safety, said the flu virus was transmitted in droplets in the air when infected people coughed or sneezed, the same as the cold and other respiratory viruses.

But a key route of transmission was from the hands of someone infected, who touched their nose or mouth and then opened a door or pressed a lift button later touched by someone else.

"We want to try and reduce the risk of cross-infection in people admitted to hospital when a pandemic strikes," Sir Liam said.

At any one time, more than 1.4 million people worldwide become seriously ill from an infection they pick up in hospital, including up to one in 10 hospital patients in developed countries such as the UK.

The commonest infections are Staphylococcus aureus, of which the antibiotic resistant form MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is the most lethal, and E.coli. Together they cause hundreds of millions of patients to fall ill in hospital every year.

The campaign for clean hands, the first Global Patient Safety Challenge launched by the WHO, aims to provide bottles of alcohol rub on every ward in every hospital and clinic. Muslim scholars have approved the use of the alcohol-based product by Muslims and more than 200 hospitals in Saudi Arabia have installed alcohol rub this year.

Sir Liam said: "The Global Patient Safety Challenge addresses a vital area. Healthcare-associated infections can be reduced, saving millions of lives worldwide."