Advances in vaccination and antibiotic treatment have made people complacent about hygiene, say public health experts. This is especially true in the home, where there has been a tendency to assume, wrongly, that the risk of infection is low.
But scare stories in recent years about SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), avian flu (H5N1), food poisoning, the winter vomiting bug (norovirus) and hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA and C. diff have made hygiene a concern.
Experience has also shown that as soon as one infectious disease is brought under control, another emerges. Despite predictions by experts, antibiotics have not brought an end to infectious diseases. The emergence of infections such as MRSA and C. diff is blamed on the use and misuse of antibiotics, both inside and outside hospitals.
Microbiologist Professor Sally Bloomfield, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says good hygiene practices are the best way to tackle antibiotic resistance. Good hygiene habits means fewer infections, fewer patients needing antibiotics and fewer diseases.
Healthcare workers now realise the home has a critical role in the fight against infectious diseases. There are simple things we can all do to make a difference.
"What we do at home is hugely important," says Bloomfield. "If we can prevent the spread of infections in the household through good hygiene, we can prevent them spreading into the wider community and into hospitals.
"If you go into hospital for surgery, the person you're most likely to get infected from is yourself. Therefore, it makes sense to protect yourself and your family from exposure to germs such as MRSA at home so you don't become a carrier.
"The home is the place we have control of, where individuals can make a difference in reducing the spread of infection."
Research has shown two-thirds of Britons don't follow basic hygiene, and men are the worst offenders. A 2007 survey by the Hygiene Council found many people don't wash their hands after using the toilet, before they prepare food, or after coughing and sneezing. Nearly a quarter of the population handles food after stroking their pets without using any disinfectant first.
Virologist John Oxford, chairman of the Hygiene Council and Professor of Virology at Barts and The London, says people don't think of the home as a source of infection.
"They see the home as 'safe', but in fact it's a place where you can get infected," he says. "Most people have no idea how critical the simple act of washing their hands is in preventing the spread of infection."
Tackling the spread of infectious diseases in the home involves focusing on germ hotspots to eliminate bacteria, wherever and whenever there's a risk of them spreading and causing infection.
"It doesn't mean you have to sterilise the whole home," says Bloomfield. It has been suggested that overzealous cleaning may have caused the rise of allergies in recent years.
Bloomfield says that although research suggests exposure to microbes in early childhood builds a balanced immune system, there's no evidence we need to suffer infections or expose ourselves to harmful germs.
There is no proven link between hygiene measures such as hand washing and food hygiene and the increase in allergies. "The idea that dirt is 'good' and hygiene somehow 'unnatural' has been popularised in the media," says Bloomfield. "This idea has had a negative impact on the public's perception of infectious disease risks in the home and the importance of using hygiene measures to control such risks."