Installing alcohol-based hand sanitiser dispensers in classrooms may not mean fewer sick days for kids, a New Zealand study has suggested.

The study, published today in the journal PLOS Medicine, found absence rates at schools that installed dispensers in classrooms as part of the survey were similar at those "control" schools which did not.

The research, led by Associate Professor Patricia Priest and University of Otago colleagues, involved 68 schools in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill and nearly 2500 pupils.

In schools randomly assigned to the "intervention" group, alcohol-based hand sanitiser dispensers were installed in the classrooms over two winter terms and the children were asked to use the dispensers after coughing or sneezing and on the way out of the classroom for breaks.


Along with no difference in absence rates, the researchers found having hand sanitiser did not reduce the number of absences due to a specific illness, the length of illness and length of absence from school, or the number of episodes in which at least one other family member became ill.

Beforehand, the authors believed a 20 per cent reduction in absences due to illness would be important enough to merit schools considering making hand sanitiser available, so designed the study to detect such a difference.

"Some previous studies suggested that there could be a bigger effect than that, but we wanted to be sure of detecting an effect of that size if it was there," Dr Priest told the Herald.

"We thought that this intervention might help schools reduce the rate of children's absence due to illness, and so this wasn't the finding we had hypothesised."

However, Dr Priest emphasises that the study's findings were not relevant to the importance of hand hygiene in general, nor did it change the message of cleaning hands before eating or after using the toilet, coughing or touching pets.

While the findings suggested that providing hand sanitiser in classrooms may not be an effective way to reduce child-to-child transmission of infectious diseases in high income countries, there were some limitations to the study.

For example, the trial was undertaken during an influenza epidemic, and therefore influenza-related public-health messages about good hand hygiene may have increased hand hygiene among all the children in the study and obscured any effectiveness of the intervention.