Masking in an epidemic

Doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals have a long history of wearing face masks in clinical environments, but I’ve never seen a person in scrubs walking down the street in a face mask.  That look is generally reserved to  tourists, particularly from Japan and China, who wear masks as they see the sights.

Surgical masks were never designed for continual use.

China has a long history of using face masks as therapeutic devices. It stems back to the Manchurian plague of 1911. However, it was not until SARS epidemic in 2003 that the Sino-Japanese face mask experienced a renaissance.  But are they effective?

There is a lot of evidence about face masks – both as protective devices against spreading infection and against inhaling toxic urban pollutants. Unfortunately, none of it conclusively supports the use of masks. That is why public health bodies such as the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association and the European Society of Cardiology have no recommendations on the use of masks or portable purifiers against air pollution.

Perhaps that is because eco-sound face masks that can be reused lose 20% of their efficiency after a few washes. Repeated washing and drying increases the pore size to allow more pollutants in as well as decreasing the number in microfibers within the pores that trap the noxious agents.

Even when used in clinical settings masks have their limitations. Research shows that even for an infection assumed to be spread by droplets, only a respirator (but not a mask) has efficacy in preventing infection.

Prolonged use of even the most effective face masks is not recommended. Even if it were, research shows that face masks of any kind are uncomfortable to wear for a long time. It can be difficult to breathe in one. Carbon dioxide can build up and cause drowsiness. The mask must be taken on and off to talk, eat and drink. Over longer periods of time, the filter can become wet and the microfibres clogged from the moisture of human breath. Once clogged, masks are worse than useless.

So, despite the share price of face mask companies going up by 100% since January, I’m not going to invest there.

Nor am I going to put one on outside of a health care facility, coronavirus notwithstanding.   Of the first 41 cases in Wuhan, 73% of those afflicted were men who had other health problems that would compound the effect of the virus. Not my demographic.

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