Clean hands, healthy gut: All that hand-washing and sanitizing during COVID slashed UK gut infections in half

The amount of gut infections in the United Kingdom were cut in half in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, largely due to people washing their hands, scientists conclude. Now, researchers say that sticking to the same hygiene guidelines post-pandemic could continue keep infections at bay and help save millions of dollars.

An estimated 17 million gut infections are reported in England every year, resulting in over one million doctor appointments and 900,000 lab confirmed diagnoses. While the effects of COVID rules on health conditions like heart disease and cancer are still being documented, its impact on infectious diseases like gut infections, also known as gastrointestinal infections, is proving beneficial.

Scientists at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) crunched the numbers and discovered COVID health measures may have helped in more ways than one.

“There has been a marked change in trends of gastrointestinal infections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors write in their paper, published in the journal BMJ Open. “If this level of hygiene practice were to be maintained once the pandemic is over, there could be a permanent change in the number of gastrointestinal infections reported.”

Health data, routinely collected by the UKHSA’s seven surveillance systems between January 1 and August 2, 2020 was analyzed by the researchers. These surveillance systems collected information on outbreaks, laboratory notifications, calls to the nation’s health advice service, doctors’ appointments, and emergency room care.

The data was divided into seven phases of the COVID-19 response, from before the outbreak to when restrictions were eased. Results were then compared with averages which had been calculated with data collected between 2015 and 2019.

During the “pre-outbreak” phase, weeks one to four, the number of reported gut infections was comparable to previous years. But after seven weeks, from the “early outbreak” phase onwards, they began to dwindle, dropping 22 percent, the researchers report.

This trend continued until reported gut infections had fallen an astonishing 87 percent during the “late lockdown” phase, from weeks 19 to 22. Historically, almost all confirmed gut infections in England – 95 percent – are caused by viruses in hospitals or care homes.

Lab-confirmed viral outbreaks dropped 34 percent during the first between phases two and seven of the pandemic response, from 42,495 cases to 27,859. Like previous years, cases began climbing after week 16, but the rise still remained well below the five year average.

Overall, the number of suspected and confirmed gut infections dropped by 52 percent in the first six months of 2020.

Of course, the authors note that the pandemic led to a greater unwillingness to seek medical attention. Emergency care, visits to doctors, and calls to the UK’s helpline for gastroenteritis, diarrhea and vomiting were all lower than in 2019.

The researchers also analyzed Google Trends data and found searches for key phrases, like “food poisoning,” “gastroenteritis” and “sickness bug” all plunged between weeks 11 and 13. In contrast, searchers for “hand washing” and “disinfection” rose significantly between weeks eight and 14, the researchers found.

“This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish causality. It only covered the first few months of the pandemic and wasn’t able to separate out the impact of other contributory factors,” the authors note.

But keeping up sanitary measures like hand washing post pandemic could help combat other common infections.

“The drivers of this change are likely to be multifactorial: while changes in health seeking behavior, pressure on diagnostic services, and surveillance system ascertainment have undoubtedly played a role, there has likely been a true decrease in the incidence for some pathogens resulting from the control measures and restrictions implemented,” the report concludes. “This suggests that if some of these changes in behavior, such as improved hand hygiene were maintained, then we could potentially see sustained reductions in the burden of gastrointestinal illness.”

Report by South West News Service writer Tom Campbell.

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