Monday, August 31, 2009

Can you count on face masks to defend against the A(H1N1)?

While the sales of face masks and respirators have surged worldwide, their effectiveness in protecting the wearer against an airborne virus, such as A (H1N1) is limited.

This year the Kingdom’s Ministry of Health is recommending the use of surgical masks in crowds to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. Moreover, it has revised its national plan for communicable diseases, under which the health minister has said that pilgrims will be required to wear face masks in order to reduce the risk of flu transmission. Moreover, certain district municipalities, apart from stepping up food safety, have placed a condition on barbers to use disposable gloves and wear a face mask.

The question, however, is what constitutes a ‘mask’ and how helpful they are in protecting against the virus. Dr. Essam Mousa, an internal medicine consultant in a hospital in Jeddah, has recommended “any kind of three-layered masks” for protection against the infection.

However, Dr. V. P. M. Mustafa, the medical director of a local polyclinic in Jeddah, said the effectiveness of masks in protecting against the infection is not ‘100 percent guaranteed’. “Because the mask does not stick to the skin, there is a gap between the mask and the skin, through which the virus can enter,” he said. The virus can still make its way through your fingers touching your nose or mouth, which may have earlier touched infected hard surfaces like door handles, food counters and supermarket trolleys.

While not recommending the general public to wear masks, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) says the effectiveness of respirators and facemasks in preventing the transmission of A(H1N1) or seasonal influenza in various settings is not reliably known. The CDC also says that the use of a facemask or respirator (e.g. N95) is more likely to be of benefit if used as early as possible when exposed to an ill person and when the facemask or respirator is used consistently. For more read here.

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