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Meg Bartow
Vice President, Social Marketing, Emergency & Risk Communication
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Wash Your Hands – Really? That's it?

The latest breaking news about swine flu is at our fingertips. As cases spread in the U.S. and around the world, what we can do to reduce our exposure and take care of our families is a natural topic of discussion. Amid the discussion, I've noticed an undertone of disbelief about the simplicity of steps recommended.

Advice: Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer in crowded or public places. Have extra food on hand in case you need to stay home. Stay home if you are sick.

Response: Really? That's the most important thing? Seriously? That's all we should do?

It stands to reason that when confronted with a large-scale threat such as a pandemic we naturally expect to receive advice that rises to the same level of concern. Washing your hands just doesn't seem to cut it. At the same time, the most commonplace of actions are often easy ones to postpone, put on the list for tomorrow, or assume you have it taken care of.

President Obama also acknowledged this in his remarks yesterday at the White House, saying "So wash your hands when you shake hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference."

Risk communications practice shows us that taking steps that are both manageable and can make a difference helps us manage our anxiety about things beyond our control. And the fact is, when communicating protective actions for risks such as a pandemic flu, more often than not, simple actions that we all can take are not only at the top of the list, they can be the most critical. It may be hard to believe, but these simple steps are truly the most important things we can do to stop the spread of illness. During the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, communities, such as St. Louis, whose officials promoted good hygiene and social distancing, has much lower infection and death rates than other areas.

For those who just aren't swayed by the advice, here are other reasons to reconsider:

Give in to Peer Pressure:
Consider your last trip to the grocery store or on public transportation and how easily infection can be spread. These days, you don't want to be the one person who doesn't sneeze into your sleeve or conspicuously use hand sanitizer.

Avoid Inconvenience:
We are used to getting things when and how we want them. While swine flu may not affect us directly, the availability of groceries or other services that we depend on may slow. Having extras on hand keeps you from standing in long lines for supplies if H1N1 escalates.

Kill Two Birds with One Stone:
Take the time now to review your family plan in case you need to stay home or encounter a healthy emergency and you'll be prepared for other disasters as well. Have extra food and water and you'll be ready when a storm or power outage hits your area, or if your child's school is closed.

Be a Role Model:
Behavior, just like the flu, is contagious. Often our children are taught good hygiene at school and remind US to sing happy birthday twice when washing our hands. View this challenge as a "teachable" moment, for ourselves, our family and for others.

Learn more about how to prepare for H1N1.