With the swine flu outbreak leading many to go for masks, including as far away as Sydney, Australia’s airport, you have to wonder how much a mask can actually help. Apparently they are becoming hot items online. While the thought is understandable, experts are skeptical about the usefulness of the masks.
Professor John Oxford, a virologist at The Barts and the London, explains: “Really, there is very little evidence that masks actually offer much protection against flu. I think handing them out to the public, as has happened in Mexico, just destroys confidence.”
Healthcare workers are another story, though. Some countries have instructed their medical personnel to wear masks as well as special gloves. This is especially recommended for those that will be in contact with potential victims.
Officials from groups such as the World Health Organization and England’s Health Protection Agency have steered clear of calling for masks for the general public. The Department of Health has focused on getting respirator masks, which have filters that stop a person from breathing in some particles in the air. Respirator masks are much more effective than standard surgical masks and dust masks.
However, none of the masks can stop 100% of the particles from getting through, and they become less effective when they are moist.
The University of London’s deputy director of biomedical science had this to say about wearing masks:
If you sneeze with a mask the virus will be contained so from that point of view if everyone wore them it might stop the spread. Or you could get the people with flu wearing them, but by the time they are diagnosed it could be too late. And the problem is that when someone sneezes they tend to take a mask off. I think masks give people a false sense of security. They are not bio-chemical suits. Masks are obviously just covering one part of the body so your hands and clothes could all have the virus on and when you take them off you will infect yourself. However, because people are wearing a mask they will think they are protected and may go into crowded areas. The best advice is to wash your hands and cover your mouth when sneezing.
Glamorgan University expert Gail Lusardi agreed with that statement, adding:
Masks alone will not prevent spread of the influenza virus and basic hygiene measures like hand washing, safe use and disposal of tissues and cleaning of environmental surfaces are key to preventing infection transmission. A mask can be worn continuously for up to eight to ten hours, but must be replaced if it is taken off at any stage.
She also said it was important for the masks to be correctly fitted. Some of the more expensive respirator masks are molded to fit the face, unlike standard masks that can be bought on the high street.
-additional reporting via bbc news