Swapping handwashing for sanitiser partly to blame for Victoria’s gastro outbreak

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP</span>
Photograph: Erik Anderson/AAP

People using hand sanitiser instead of – rather than as well as – washing their hands have in part been blamed for an outbreak of viral gastroenteritis in Victoria.

In March, Victorian health authorities warned gastroenteritis cases were up four-fold from the five-year average. On Monday, the Department of Health said viral gastroenteritis was continuing to spread, with 389 outbreaks in childcare and early education centres so far in 2021 – an increase of 140 on the previous month.

Victoria’s executive director for communicable disease, Dr Bruce Bolam, said handwashing with soap and water is still the best personal hygiene method to minimise the chance of spreading the virus.

“A good old-fashioned scrub with soap and warm water is the best way to remove the gastro virus from our hands and prevent passing it on to infect others,” Bolam said. While alcohol-based sanitiser is helpful in tackling coronavirus, it is much less effective against bugs such as norovirus, which is the predominant cause of the current childcare gastroenteritis outbreaks, he said.

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Viral gastroenteritis is highly infectious. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain, headache and muscle aches. They can take up to three days to develop and usually last between one or two days, sometimes longer. In rare cases, it can develop into a much more serious illness.

Infants or children in early childhood services or school as well as staff who develop vomiting or diarrhoea should stay at home for at least 48 hours after their symptoms have stopped. Anyone recovering from gastroenteritis should avoid visiting hospitals, early childhood services and aged care facilities to avoid spreading the infection to those most vulnerable.

Australian National University professor of infectious diseases Peter Collignon said there is no point using hand sanitiser to disinfect hands without cleaning them first. Hand sanitiser does not remove the buildup of dirt and other contaminants, he said.

“If you have soiled hands, you need to wash them with soap and water before sanitising,” he said. “Alcohol doesn’t work as well as soap and water for killing norovirus as it does for other viruses.

“Like all disinfecting, cleaning first is essential. You can’t just dip something in a magic solution and make it sterile. Clean, then sterilise. Gastro is one of those examples of sanitiser not working quickly and taking a while to penetrate, so handwashing is important.”

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