Tags: Health Topics | Cold/Flu | coronavirus | surgical mask

Can Wearing Masks Stop the Spread of Viruses?

passengers wear masks to protect against the coronavirus at narita international airport in tokyo
Passengers wear masks to protect against the coronavirus at Narita International Airport in Tokyo. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

By    |   Thursday, 23 January 2020 11:23 AM

With the coronavirus spreading rapidly and creating international concern, many people in countries around the world are using surgical masks to protect themselves. But do these masks help stop the spread of viruses?

The effectiveness of these masks remains disputed, with the medical world firmly divided on the topic. There is evidence that supports the theory but there is also research that disproves it.

Dr. David Carrington of St George's, University of London, remains skeptical. Chatting with BBC News for a report published Thursday, he said that "routine surgical masks for the public are not an effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air."

This is because the masks may be too loose-fitting, or may leave the eyes exposed. That's how "most viruses" are transmitted, explained Carrington, adding that the masks could provide a small amount of protection against a virus by working as a barrier from the "splash" that comes from a sneeze of a cough.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center conducted a study late last year and found that surgical masks can be just as efficient as more expensive respirator-type masks in protecting healthcare workers from flu and other respiratory viruses.

"This finding is important from a public policy standpoint because it informs about what should be recommended and what kind of protective apparel should be kept available for outbreaks," said Dr. Trish Perl, Chief of UT Southwestern's Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine and the report's senior author.

Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, agreed that certain controlled studies in hospital settings have suggested that "the face mask was as good at preventing influenza infection as a purpose-made respirator," according to the BBC.

However, when translated to how this would affect the general population, "the data is less compelling," Ball said. "It's quite a challenge to keep a mask on for prolonged periods of time."

Dr. Jake Dunning, the head of emerging infections and zoonoses at Public Health England, argued that although there is a perception that wearing a facemask may be beneficial, "there is in fact very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings."

In order for it to work, people would have to change them frequently and ensure they were disposed of correctly but research has found that "compliance with these recommended behaviors reduces over time when wearing facemasks for prolonged periods," Dunning said.

An effective strategy to help prevent the spread of viral infection still comes down to basic hygiene, said Dr. Connor Bamford of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen's University Belfast.

"Covering your mouth while sneezing, washing your hands, and not putting your hands to your mouth before washing them could help limit the risk of catching any respiratory virus," he said.

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With the coronavirus spreading rapidly and creating international concern, many people in countries around the world are using surgical masks to protect themselves. But do they work?
coronavirus, surgical mask
Thursday, 23 January 2020 11:23 AM
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