We’ve all heard the advice. If you get sick with a cold or flu, stay home so you don’t pass it on to friends, co-workers or that guy sitting next to you on the bus.
Sure, sure, we say, loading up on Nyquil and heading out the door. Who can stay home when we’ve got projects to complete at work, movies to see, or that special birthday dinner out on the town with mom?
An interesting new study that looked at home television viewing during a flu epidemic in Mexico, however, shows just how much staying at home and avoiding contact with others can actually quell the spread of infectious diseases like the flu.
The study, conducted by a team of economists and epidemiologists, was published today in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases. Lead author Dr. Michael Springborn looked at home television viewing as a proxy for “social distancing behavior” and found that it was a “key factor in constraining the initial wave of A/H1N1,” a virus that turned out to pack more of a punch than initially thought.
“The swine flu outbreak that hit Mexico City in April 2009 could have been worse, but spread of the virus was reduced by people’s behavioral response of distancing themselves from each other,” said Springborn, an economist at University of California at Davis.
Springborn acknowledged that the TV-viewing proxy was “imperfect” but said the data was widely available and “highly correlated with time spent in the home.”
And if people are at home, they’re not out coughing and sneezing and spreading their germs around in public.
Staff scientist Dr. Dennis Chao, with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, said he found the study and its television-viewing proxy interesting for a couple of reasons.
“It’s difficult and expensive for epidemiologists to measure human behavior,” he said. “Television viewing is a novel way to ascertain that individuals are at home. And when people are home, they are not in the community spreading infectious diseases.”
But he said the study also demonstrated how well public health efforts worked during a recent A/H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak, which took place in central Mexico during April and May of 2009. In response to the flu virus, the Mexican government closed public schools in metropolitan Mexico City and began a public awareness campaign, encouraging people to stay home and avoid others. Toward this end, they closed restaurants, entertainment venues and cancelled large public events.
“It’s really hard to measure how effective public health media campaigns are,” said Chao. “This study gives us a hint of how people actually respond to them.”
Fighting the flu with common sense approaches like social distancing is especially important in a year when there’s a severe flu and a flu vaccine that’s not as effective as in years past. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this season’s vaccine has reduced a person’s risk of going to the doctor for flu by just 23 percent across all ages.
Even though it’s not as effective, Chao said it’s still important to get that flu shot.
“This year’s influenza vaccine is not particularly good, but vaccination is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family against flu and other infectious diseases,” he said.
Public health officials are also now recommending certain people – like the elderly -- use antiviral flu medications like Tamiflu, which can lessen flu symptoms and get you back on your feet sooner.
“Tamiflu can reduce your symptoms and lower the probability of transmission to others, but only if you take it really soon after you get sick,” said Chao. “It’s most important for those at high risk of poor outcome from getting the flu, like the elderly. I don’t think anyone would recommend that everyone in the U.S. who gets sick should take it.”
What is recommended for all are the disease-prevention basics we’ve heard about since we were little: cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands often, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth and avoid close contact with others as much as you possibly can.
“Wash your hands and clean surfaces more, especially if you’re home trapped with a sick child,” said Chao. “Throw away used Kleenex instead of leaving them all over the place. And don’t touch your face – that’s a big thing. It’s shocking how much people touch their faces.”
And finally yes, if you’re sick, by all means stay in and watch a little TV. Just don't invite a bunch of friends over.
“You definitely don’t want to have a Super Bowl party,” Chao said.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has also written extensively about health issues for nbcnews.com, TODAY.com, CNN.com, MSN.com, Columns and several other publications. She also writes the breast cancer blog, doublewhammied.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.