One of the abiding images of any virus outbreak is people in surgical masks. Using them to stop infection is popular in many countries around the world, most notably China during the present coronavirus outbreak where they’re also worn to guard against high pollution levels.
Virologists are skeptical about their effectiveness against airborne viruses. But there’s some evidence to suggest the masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.
Surgical masks were first introduced into hospitals within the late 18th Century but they didn’t make the transition into public use until the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919 that went on to kill over 50 million people.
Dr. David Carrington, of St George’s, University of London, told BBC News “routine surgical masks for the general public aren’t an efficient protection against viruses or bacteria carried within the air”, which was how “most viruses” were transmitted because they were too loose, had no air cleaner and left the eyes exposed.
But they might help lower the danger of contracting an epidemic through the “splash” from a sneeze or a cough and supply some protection against hand-to-mouth transmissions.
A 2016 study from New South Wales suggested people touched their faces about 23 times an hour.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: “In one well-controlled study during a hospital setting, the mask was nearly as good at preventing influenza infection as a purpose-made respirator.”
Respirators, which tend to feature a specialized air cleaner, are specifically designed to guard against potentially hazardous airborne particles.
“However, once you move to studies watching their effectiveness within the general population, the info is a smaller amount compelling – it’s quite challenging to stay a mask on for prolonged periods of your time,” Prof Ball added.
Dr. Connor Bamford, of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, at Queen’s University Belfast, said “implementing simple hygiene measures” was vastly simpler.
“Covering your mouth while sneezing, washing your hands, and not putting your hands to your mouth before washing them, could help limit the danger of catching any respiratory virus,” he said.
Dr. Jake Dunning, head of emerging infections and zoonoses at Public Health England, said: “Although there’s a perception that the wearing of facemasks could also be beneficial, there’s actually little or no evidence of widespread enjoy their use outside of those clinical setting.”
He said masks had to be worn correctly, changed frequently and got obviate safely if they were to figure properly.
“Research also shows that compliance with these recommended behaviors reduces over time when wearing facemasks for prolonged periods,” he added. People would be better to specialize in good personal and hand hygiene if they’re concerned, Dr. Dunning said.