As emergency rooms fill with people worried about swine flu, and the drumbeat of warnings from the Centers for Disease Control gets louder, Americans are squirting hand sanitizer at an astonishing pace. Between July and September, shipments of hand sanitizer rose a remarkable 129 percent over the previous year, according to Panjiva, a data-tracking and analysis firm.

That growth reflects a huge spike in demand for the slippery stuff as consumers worry more this year about getting sick. It's hard to miss the rapidly growing presence of hand-sanitizer dispensers at gyms, in museums, and in shopping centers. Our local drugstore runs out of the stuff faster than it used to. Even our local supermarket checkout cashiers keep the stuff next to the credit-card terminals, so shoppers can clean their digits after signing their receipts.
In another sign of our changing perception of flu dangers, many pharmacies and doctor's offices have already run out of standard seasonal flu-vaccine shots -- not the H1N1 vaccines, which have yet to reach these places -- and don't expect any more in this year. The public definitely doesn't see this autumn as a ho-hum flu season.

Marketers are scrambling to be prepared. The most obvious beneficiary of the hand sanitizer spike, according to blogger Paul Kedrosky, is the category leader, Purell. A subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Purell makes up tiny portion of the healthcare giant's revenues, but its increase is impressive: P&G ordered 128 large waterborne shipments of hand sanitizer from overseas manufacturers in the third quarter, up from 56 shipments a year earlier, according to Panjiva. And on a shipment weight basis, the amount of hand santizer sent out in the third quarter was actually triple that of the same period in the year prior.

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