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Surgical Masks Help Ward Off Flu, Maybe
Date:8/3/2009

sue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, as does another study finding that the antiviral medications Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) are effective for preventing symptoms of the seasonal flu in healthy adults.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world die each year from the seasonal flu. And the recently arrived swine flu circling the globe has made the task of finding ways to prevent infection more urgent. Many fear the swine flu pandemic, still causing only relatively mild illness, will become more virulent in the fall.

The face mask and hand hygiene study involved 407 people arriving at one of 45 clinics in Hong Kong with flu-like symptoms and who had laboratory-confirmed influenza A or B. Also involved were 794 household members from 259 households.

The patients and their household contacts were randomized into three groups: a control group that received "lifestyle education" only; instruction in hand hygiene methods such as hand washing with soap or alcohol hand rub; and surgical face masks with hand hygiene.

Combined face masks plus hand hygiene helped prevent the spread of the virus, but the benefit was small and only when precautions were started within 36 hours of symptoms appearing.

It's clear that hand washing helps prevent spread of the flu, and CDC guidelines support the practice. It's less clear how much masks matter.

And there are many variables in face masks these authors didn't address, Lillibridge pointed out.

"There are a lot of issues about face masks that tend to increase their usefulness. One is training. The second is proper fitting. The third is a new generation of face masks which have fibers that are treated with anti-viral and anti-microbial particles that increase killing. Those three important issues weren't properly factored in in this study," he said.

"In our study we used surgical masks, which should be available over the counte
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