Swine flu prevention & protection

Swine flu masks

There are conflicting views as to the effectiveness of face masks as a protective measure against swine flu. As reported on the Guardians' online news site (http://www.guardian.co.uk) "The scientific evidence does not support the general wearing of face masks by those who are not ill while going about their daily business," says Alan Johnson, secretary of state for health.

One opposing view comes from Andrew Easton, professor of virology at the University of Warwick, who argues that the correct mask can potentially reduce risk. The key word here is correct. "Most paper masks are worse than useless," says Dr Ron Cutler, deputy director of biomedical sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. "To be effective, they need to conform to CDC (Centre for Disease Control) standards".

He goes on to say that "the best ones are sculpted to the face and are expensive, but even then they are of limited value. The virus is transmitted on water-born droplets from coughs and sneezes, and while the mask may prevent you getting infected from direct contact, it can't stop it landing anywhere else. So you can pick it up on your hands without knowing. Your best bet is to steer clear of anyone coughing and sneezing and to wash your hands frequently."

A report commisioned by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) goes further as reported on the Daily Mails' website (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/) as follows: "FFP2 & FFP3 respirators drastically reduce the risk of contraction during a pandemic, hence why Fire & Rescue services use them for Pandemic/ Avian / Foot & Mouth protection & decontamination, yet the govt is providing our frontline workers with minimal protection?"

."Perhaps someone should confront the HPA or Health minister asking why they are ignoring the recommendations from the H.S.E and discounting them by saying that face mask respirators would provide NO protection for the public, when clearly according to the HSE they do"?

One thing that is clear is that an overall strategy is needed and not just the wearing of swine flu masks. This includes other preventive measures such as frequent handwashing and staying away from sick people.

Another important point is that the level of protection depended on whether the masks were worn properly — over both the mouth and nose, for instance — and whether they were worn consistently. One problem with the N-95 masks is that although they filter microscopic particles, they also impede breathing, making them uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

Still, using masks in a place with an identified outbreak might make sense, said Barbara Russell, director of infection control at Baptist Hospital of Miami, Fla., and an emergency preparedness expert with the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

“If you are in an epidemic center like New York, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have some around,” Russell said. “As far as wearing it to work or wearing it on the street, we’re not there yet.”

People who don masks may also wash their hands more frequently, avoid crowds and take more responsibility for safeguarding their health.

“It shifts the locus of control,” he said. “It makes people think, ‘I’m not just a victim, waiting for the virus to attack me.’”

There are several different types of masks that have been recommended by various agencies to help prevent the spread of a swine flu virus. More commonly, disposable repirator masks are recommended because of the fact that they can be carefully and safely discarded after being worn in a contaminated environment.

The other option are re-usable masks which are more robust tend offer and tighter fit on account of rubber/silicone sealing as well as adjustable straps. The draw back with re-usable respirators is the fact there is a risk that the mask can become a vessel for the swine flu virus if it is brought back into the wearer's safe area and not properly disinfected.

Masks should be fit-tested and the wearer should know how to check the face-piece to face seal. Those who cannot wear a disposable particulate respirator because of facial hair or other fit limitations should wear a loose-fitting (i.e., helmeted or hooded) powered air purifying respirator equipped with high-efficiency filters.

Types of disposable respirator

In the USA, the production of disposable respirators is regulated by the National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH). There are two main NIOSH approved mask types that are currently marketed for protection against swine flu. These are the NIOSH 95 and NIOSH 99 masks. In Europe it is the European Union that regulates the sale of disposable masks and the two masks generally recommended for swine flu are the FFP2 and FFP3 types.

In both cases the differences between the two masks boils down to the size of particle that the respirator can filter out. However no disposable mask offers 100% protection against fine particles such as virus particles, so their use needs to be undertaken with a certain degree of care.

In order for a disposable respirator to be worn comfortably for a medium length of time it is generally accepted that a valve should be present. Swine flu masks without valves are not going to be very comfortable should you be wearing it on a hot and stuffy bus or a train on your way to work. This is particularly true of FFP3 respirators which are quite a bit thicker than the FFP2 type and as a result the majority of FFP3 masks are designed with a valve.

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