Though most of us were taught as kids to cover our noses while sneezing or coughing, a study study conducted by researchers in New Zealand reveals that most people do not attach much importance to matters of basic hygiene.

The study, conducted at the Otago University in Wellington last year during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, shows that most people weren’t getting the message of covering their mouths while sneezing or coughing in public.

To probe sneezing habits, Dr. Nick Wilson of the Otago University had 13 students keep an eye on people at train stations, hospitals and shopping malls during August last year. The students took note of 384 instances of coughs and sneezes and found that only less than 5 percent covered up with a tissue, handkerchief or an elbow.

While more than 25 per cent did not believe in covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing, about two-thirds of the people analyzed coughed or sneezed into their hands. Public health officials across the world now ask people to refrain from sneezing into their own hands as the infection may still spread via unwashed hands and contaminated surfaces.

The findings of the study were presented at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta earlier this week. The research indicates that people of all ages were not heeding to safer sneezing and coughing requests made by health officials.

Wilson reported that the major transmission of swine flu virus came from uncovered coughing rather than contaminated surfaces.

He noted that one person accounted for about one-fourth of all coughs and sneezes that were monitored by his team of students. This could only mean that several people with respiratory tract infections were actually roaming the streets instead of staying at home.

Another factor that astounded the researchers is the fact that respiratory hygiene was the worst at hospital entrances where patients seldom bothered to cover their coughs and sneezes. However, when people moved into hospital cafes, their hygiene levels were better as several people held a tissue to cover their coughs.

Wilson, who took up the study to understand patient behavior, says other countries too should follow suit and ensure that the gap in respiratory hygiene is reduced across the world.