Donning a face mask is an easy way to boost protection from severe respiratory illnesses such as influenza and SARS, new research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has found, but convincing a reluctant public and health workers is proving a struggle.
In a world-first clinical trial of the efficacy of masks, researchers found adult mask wearers* in the home were four times more likely than non-wearers to be protected against respiratory viruses, including the common cold.
The findings published this week in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the journal of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have global implications and are particularly relevant to efforts to combat the spread of flu pandemics and other emerging respiratory diseases such as SARS.
"In the event of a severe pandemic, demand for protection could become a law and order issue," said lead author of the paper, Raina MacIntyre, who is Professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology and head of UNSW's School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
"In a crisis, vaccine development is likely to be delayed and drugs may be in short supply or not available at all," she said. "Limited supplies will be directed first to front line health workers, so masks are an important means of protection for the community, who otherwise may be last in line for vaccines and drugs."
While some governments are already stockpiling masks for use in emergencies, Professor MacIntyre said these guidelines had been implemented without evidence to support them.
"We now have provided that evidence. Masks play an important role in reducing transmission if they are worn properly."
At a day-to-day level, the study is also good news for parents of toddlers and young children.
"There is no effective treatment for the 90 or so common cold viruses that make families sick each winter, but masks could provide simple and effective protection,"
|Contact: Steve Offner|
University of New South Wales