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The one that flu away25th of November 2010
Are the effects of swine flu still being felt in the hand hygiene market? Or has the threat of a global pandemic been largely forgotten by the public? ECJ finds out.
The term 'swine flu' is rarely mentioned these days, but only a year ago the prospect of a winter pandemic resulting in thousands of deaths was causing worldwide panic. Airline passengers began donning breathing masks; antibacterial gels disappeared off the shelves and hand sanitiser systems cropped up in public places everywhere. Meanwhile health organisations were providing detailed information on effective hand washing while the public’s perception of hand hygiene underwent a fundamental change.
But how long did it last? Have we all relaxed now that the imminent threat of swine flu has abated, or is the public continuing to practice good hand hygiene habits?
In fact many manufacturers are reporting a continued high demand for hand hygiene products. Among these is Hagleitner whose hand sanitiser and touch-free dispenser sales rose as a direct result of the pandemic.
“Swine flu made people aware that hand hygiene acts as a preventive measure for their own protection,” said hygiene manager Heine Kerstin. “Demand for our hand sanitisers is still high even now.“
She said attitudes had definitely changed in the wake of the health scare. “Until swine flu came along people were mainly concerned about viruses in the hospital sector and bacteria in public areas,” she said. “Now viruses in public areas are also a topic.”
But she claims some people will never permanently change their habits. “Either someone is aware of the need for hygiene or they are not. An adult who has to be reminded like a child to wash his or her hands will only wash their hands regularly if they see a purpose in doing so.”
Despite the emergence of other bugs – such as the latest hospital superbug NDM-1, for example - Hagleitner is not monitoring other incipient threats.
Weak immune systems
“A healthy person has no reason to fear resistant germs - these are only dangerous for people with weak immune systems or wounds such as burns,” said Kerstin. “However there will always be antibiotic resistance against germs and in the coming years it will become more difficult to develop new drugs fast enough to combat this. It may sound trivial but one of the most powerful weapons that mankind has against bacteria is washing the hands.”
Also reporting a boom in sales of alcohol hand sanitisers during the pandemic is Rieke Dispensing. “Since last year there has been an increased interest in dispensing systems and much more awareness of hand hygiene,“ said managing director Mark Box. “At the same time, a domestic use market has been created for alcohol gels. This was in its infancy prior to swine flu.“
However he believes that last year’s panic has been largely forgotten and while the retail market remains buoyant, demand in the professional sector has generally returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Historically after previous scares such as SARS, MRSA, bird flu etc the level of sales is higher, but this time due to massive contingency stocking the true level is still difficult to see,“ he conceded.
SCA Tissue Europe experienced a steep rise in demand for washroom products during the pandemic and sales have remained buoyant, according to European marketing director Brian Parkinson.
“There was an increase in sales of all our products relating to hand hygiene,” he said. “In some areas people were switching over to paper towels because they saw them as being more hygienic than alternatives such as warm air dryers or linen towels.”
Changes in purchasing habits were only to be expected following the swine flu outbreak, says Parkinson, but this year’s sales have continued to rise. “This shows that customers have made a permanent change because even if the pandemic has passed, the importance of hand hygiene remains,” he said.
One particular growth area has been in alcohol gels and soaps containing alcohol, he said. “People stocked up and probably over-estimated their requirements as the pandemic didn’t turn out to be as bad as everyone feared.”
The upsurge in demand for alcohol gels were something of a knee-jerk reaction, according to Parkinson. “Alcohol gels are absolutely the best thing in certain areas, such as in the healthcare sector where a doctor or nurse is going from patient to patient and where water is not available,” he said.
“But in most instances, alcohol gels are not really needed because washing the hands and drying them with a paper towel afterwards does a proper job of removing bacteria. However during the swine flu pandemic, I think people liked the reassurance that alcohol gels provided.”
Divisional sales director for Cannon Pat Gillingham says the company experienced a substantial increase in demand for anti-viral and sanitising products during the height of the pandemic. These included hand sanitisers, cleansing and surface wipes and antibacterial surface sprays.
“Last year's pandemic raised such consistent and prolonged awareness of the added protection that hand hygiene can bring that demand for sanitising and surface cleansing products plus no-touch washroom products remains high,” she said.
In Gillingham’s view, swine flu has certainly not been forgotten by the public. “Swine flu raised public health concerns on a global scale, highlighting the huge implications of the pandemic on businesses and the world economy,” she said. “While this is now less poignant, a general awareness of good personal hygiene and the responsibility of organisations to keep their staff, customers and visitors safe are still at the forefront of people's minds.”
According to Gillingham, other effects of the pandemic have included an increased demand for products containing silver ion antimicrobial technology. “Clients are also increasingly demanding 'no touch' products such as auto-lid feminine hygiene units and automatic soap dispensers and hand dryers,” she said.
Kimberly-Clark’s EMEA segment marketing manager Richard Millard says the company experienced an increase demand for hand towels, facial tissue and soap products last year. However, demand has now returned to normal. “Swine flu is no longer making the headlines and it would appear that this has led to a drop-off in public concern about any ongoing impact of the outbreak,” he said.
According to Millard, pandemics such as swine flu can help to increase the public’s hand hygiene practices, though additional awareness campaigns by governments can also help.
"My personal belief is that swine flu has increased general awareness of hand sanitising gels and rubs beyond the traditional areas such as healthcare and food production,” he said. “Although their use is not as widespread as during the height of the swine flu pandemic, sanitisers are appearing in new areas such as office building foyers and hotel receptions for example.”
Managing director of Albany Hygiene Facilities Mike Burton agrees that the pandemic initially increased demand for hand sanitiser dispensers for entrances and offices as well as for pocket hand sanitisers.
“Demand has nearly dropped back to pre-swine flu levels because once the pandemic has passed, people do not feel so threatened and therefore do not take as many precautions,” he said.
“However now we are moving towards winter it is believed people may be more cautious. Even though the threat of swine flu may have subsided there are always new infection threats for which we should be prepared.”
He said the company had noticed a slight increase in hand hygiene awareness overall. “There is still some ignorance in the public domain, however, with people believing that sanitisers are a substitute for soap. But these should be used as well as washing and drying your hands.”
Albany Hygiene is continuing to monitor threats regarding hand hygiene, says Burton. “We will shortly be working with London’s Queen Mary University in a knowledge transfer partnership to help improve infection control in schools and other premises across the UK,” he said. “This will involve in-depth research into hygiene practices and will transfer knowledge as to how improvements can be made.”
Vectair marketing co-ordinator Matthew Wonnacott says the company experienced an increase in sales of all products associated with germ kill during the pandemic. “The swine flu effect led to an unusually large increase in sales of instant hand sanitiser and other soap variants,” he said.
Demand for soaps has remained high, but sales of instant hand sanitisers have returned to their pre-swine flu levels says Wonnacott. “During the swine flu outbreak the industry saw moments of panic-buying of instant hand sanitisers in bulk, and now that the threat has been reduced the stocks are returning to normal levels,” he said.
According to Wonnacott there is a tendency for people to become complacent. “The industry is still concerned about the threat but it has become largely forgotten in the public domain,” he said.
“Since there is no real current threat people have begun to have less time to wash their hands and keep surfaces clean. But hands that have not been cleaned and surfaces that have not been sanitised are a breeding ground for bacteria and germs. If we continue to be complacent about hygiene I think there is a strong possibility that this outbreak could return.”