Swine Flu: Handwashers Blase for Now

OCD experts say swine flu is the least of their germ-phobic patients' concerns

ByABC News
May 4, 2009, 3:02 PM

May 5, 2009— -- As swine flu mania reached fever pitch last week, doctors specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorder waited for an onslaught of calls from their germ-phobic patients.

But the calls never came.

While ordinary Americans were stockpiling hand sanitizers and face masks, the chronic hand-washers were apparently coping.

But, experts say, if the mystery and the intensity of the swine flu does not let up soon, obsessive-compulsives may be singing a different tune.

"If the swine flu dies down like SARS and West Nile virus did, it will probably stay out of people's awareness," said Jeffrey Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation.

"But if it is prolonged and becomes a 'we really don't know,' this is really going to bug people with OCD," he told ABCNews.com.

About one in 59 adults in the United States has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and about twice that many have had it at some point in their lives, according to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation.

In OCD, the brain "gets stuck on a particular thought or urge and just can't let go," sort of like "mental hiccups."

The hallmarks of OCD are a preoccupation with germs and cleanliness and constant "checking" -- over and over again.

Obsessions include contamination fears from germs and dirt, losing control or hurting oneself or others. Common compulsions are: washing, repeating, checking, touching and counting.

According to a national poll on swine flu released last week by the Harvard School of Public Health, 46 percent of Americans are concerned about catching swine flu in the next year.

In response to the outbreak, 59 percent say they have washed their hands or used a hand sanitizer more frequently.

In a new Gallup Poll conducted Sunday, 19 percent said they personally worried "yesterday" about getting swine flu, down from 25 percent Thursday night.

The percentages of people who said they were taking precautions -- such as staying home, keeping kids home, not shopping, avoiding mass transit and canceling air travel -- all remained in low single digits.

But for OCD sufferers, who engage in excessive hand-washing, health warnings can cause a conundrum. How does one take reasonable precautions, yet not overreact?

One 38-year-old woman who is in treatment at the live-in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Institute at Boston's McLean Hospital, said she is worried more about her "intrusive thoughts" than germs right now.

"I have heard about it on the news but people aren't talking about it much," the supermarket cashier, who did not want to be identified, told ABCNews.com.

Still, she says, "I don't want to get it and I have to shower and brush my teeth here."

Mary Ellen, a 54-year-old administrative assistant from New Jersey who asked that her last name not be used, is a chronic hand-washer ever since she was diagnosed with diabetes in 1996.