Swine flu – are the masks really protecting people?

© Photo by Eduardo Mlawer on Flickr.

As the first cases of swine flu are confirmed in Europe and the first fatality in the US, everybody wants to know how best to protect themselves from the virus. Are the masks we see worn in Mexico City efficient? Not really, according to a specialist...

"Viruses can pass through standard surgical masks"

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a journalist specialised in science. She's tweeting on the evolution of the virus.

Surgical masks can aid prevention, but only to a point. Viruses can pass through standard surgical masks. You're better off using a specialty mask with the designation N-95 or N-99. Those are available online or at pharmacies. But even that's not perfect. The virus can live for up to two hours outside the human body and it's likely to be on any surface an infected person might touch after sneezing, or sneeze on directly. Desks, doorknobs, computers...lots of things. Hand-washing and keeping your hands away from your eyes and face (and, if you have the flu, staying away from everybody else) are still the best ways to prevent transmission.

About antiviral medications like tamiflu - those drugs could, theoretically, work as a preventative measure. But, according to Christine Layton, a public health policy analyst with the North Carolina-based non-profit research institute RTI International, that would be a REALLY bad idea. She says:

Influenza (like other viruses) can become resistant to antiviral medication. When this occurs, antiviral medications are no longer effective. The best way to prevent the development of resistant viruses (or bacteria) is to use antiviral (or antibiotic) medications only when infected with a virus which will respond to the medication.'

Another great way to keep from getting swine flu: don't go to Mexico. The State Department has said that all non-essential travel to the area should be avoided. Do what they say, here. Even if it ends up costing you some money on airline tickets, the risk of picking something up - and, perhaps worse, spreading it to family, friends, and everyone you share an airplane with - just isn't worth it. You don't want to be responsible for that."

"The masks are becoming something a business in Mexico"

Alfonso Salgado is a researcher specialised in autoimmune diseases at the National Institute for Respiratory Illnesses in Mexico City, the hospital in which the first victim of swine flu was administered.

These masks are not very efficient. The disease is caught mainly through physical contact. For example, if you touch an object which is carrying the virus, you then transmit it by touching your eyes or mouth. The masks can therefore stop you from touching your face, and stop those who have the virus from contaminating others through touch, but that's all. Personally I don't wear a mask, but I wash my hands whenever I get the chance.


The government is distributing masks. When I drove into the city by car for example, they gave me one as I came into the centre. The authorities are saying ‘it can't do any harm'. I'd say that about 50 per cent of people are wearing a mask, and on public transport, almost everyone.  

The masks are becoming something of a business in Mexico City. People buy up the entire stock from a pharmacy at two pesos a piece [11 euro centimes] and then sell them on at ten times the price."

Masked in Mexico City

Photos by Eduardo Mlawer.

Comments

"Surgical masks can aid

"Surgical masks can aid prevention, but only to a point. Viruses can pass through standard surgical masks."

I don't get it.. does this mean that if you cough or sneeze at/onto a surface while wearing a surgical mask the liquid droplets go right through the thing? Than what exactly is the point of having surgeons wear surgical masks?

"The masks are becoming something of a business in Mexico City. People buy up the entire stock from a pharmacy at two pesos a piece [11 euro centimes] and then sell them on at ten times the price."

In this case I wonder why shops don't enforce a 'n-number of masks per customer' policy, it certainly sounds like with this demand they would sell out the things either way? Even if the shops would sell them at a double price customers wouldn't be victimized half as much as now..

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