From The TimesJanuary 26, 2009
Facemasks can protect against flu - if only people keep them onMark Henderson, Science Editor
Protective facemasks can guard against respiratory infections such as flu, and could play an important part in defending against a pandemic, according to research.
Persuading people to wear a mask and to fit it properly, however, is a difficult task that could limit their effectiveness, British and Australian scientists have found. In a clinical trial of the effectiveness of masks, researchers at Imperial College London and the University of New South Wales studied 280 adults from 143 families living in Sydney during the winter flu seasons of 2006 and 2007.
When a child in the household was ill with flu, the volunteers were asked either to wear a mask or not, on a random basis. Those who wore a mask while their children were sick were four times less likely than non-wearers to become infected by their sick children. Details of the research are published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College, who led the study, said that the findings indicated strongly that masks could be useful in protecting against flu infections, and could be important in a pandemic. “In a severe influenza pandemic, there may be limited availability of vaccines in the first few months,” he said. “In that context, masks are a potentially important additional weapon.”
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At present, Britain's pandemic strategy involves the purchase of 350 million surgical masks for NHS staff, but there are no plans to distribute such protection to the general population.
The research suggests that masks could be an effective extra element of the defence plan, provided that people could be made to wear them consistently. In the study fewer than half of those who were asked to wear masks kept them on as directed.
Have your say
This may not be practical in the general population - disposable masks have to be frequently replaced in order to be effective. Do the math! How do we manufacture & distribute so many on an ongoing basis?
barbara, minneapolis, usa
Go to Japan. They all wear them.
James, Saga, Japan