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article imageDo face masks help protect users against coronavirus infections?

By Karen Graham     Jan 23, 2020 in Health
The world has grown used to seeing people in surgical masks in any virus outbreak, as well as to protect themselves from air pollution. However, with the coronavirus outbreak, there is some skepticism over the effectiveness of the masks.
It wasn't but a short time after the Wuhan coronavirus was confirmed in a patient in Washington state that John Elzinga, who manages an industrial supply store in Langley, British Columbia, noticed his N95 face masks were flying off the shelf, reports CBC Canada.
N95 masks are standard-issue industrial face masks and are used in construction and many manufacturing facilities. But in checking, it was found that average citizens were buying the boxes of masks. One person bought 30 boxes, And they were soon sold out.
"The good news is they're on sale. This isn't a price-gouging scenario," Elzinga said with a laugh, adding that some customers specifically asked if the masks would protect from coronavirus. And herein lies a question - Are the masks effective in protecting someone from the coronavirus?
Lots of people in Wuhan  the epicentre of the outbreak  are wearing masks
Lots of people in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, are wearing masks
-, AFP
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals, including camels, cats, and bats. The virus gets its name from the crown-like spikes on its surface.
Adding the newly identified form of the virus, there are a total of seven coronaviruses that can infect humans, the CDC says. Other well-known coronaviruses include SARS and MERS. The new coronavirus is officially called "2019-nCoV."
While it remains unclear how the coronavirus is spread so easily, the CDC recommends that anyone who may have been exposed to the illness monitor themselves for 14 days after close contact with an infected person. Be on the lookout for symptoms that include fever, cough, shortness of breath, trouble breathing, body aches, sore throat or vomiting, and diarrhea.
This undated handout picture courtesy of the British Health Protection Agency shows the Coronavirus ...
This undated handout picture courtesy of the British Health Protection Agency shows the Coronavirus seen under an electron miscroscope
, British Health Protection Agency/AFP/File
Should you wear a mask?
There are some skeptics that believe the face masks are not that effective against airborne viruses, even though there is some evidence the masks can help to prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, according to the BBC.
Surgical masks were introduced to hospitals in the later part of the 18th century and transitioned to public use during the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic that eventually killed 50 million people worldwide.
Dr. David Carrington, of St George's, University of London, told BBC News "routine surgical masks for the public are not an effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air." This is how most viruses are transmitted, said Carrington, adding that the surgical masks have no air filter and leave the eyes exposed.
The N95 face mesk
The N95 face mesk
However, the masks do prevent receiving a "splash" from a cough or sneeze and offer some protection against hand-to-mouth transmissions.
Danuta Skowronski, with the British Columbia, Canada Centre for Disease Control, told CBC Canada that the agency is not recommending that people use the masks for protection, and said it would be unlikely the agency would ever issue such a directive.
"That is a huge cost with no proven benefit. It could run the risk of draining our supply of masks for the real indications that we have in the health-care system, and even from an environmental perspective, it's ill-advised," she said.
She went on to say that the only time they would recommend wearing a face mask is when someone has symptoms and is entering a health-care facility for treatment.
In 2009, in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak, the Public Health Agency of Canada asked a panel of medical experts for guidance on how flu is transmitted and how best to protect against infection.
A man on a bus wears a surgical mask to protect against an air pollution spike in Mexico City
A man on a bus wears a surgical mask to protect against an air pollution spike in Mexico City
The report found that flu viruses are mainly transmitted over short distances and that more people become infected by inhaling viruses than by touching contaminated surfaces.
One of the questions the panel considered was whether face masks would offer protection in the event of a pandemic. The study found that yes, the masks would provide protection, to some extent. The report says a face mask "can offer protection, but there's no evidence inexpensive surgical masks can protect against flu virus particles small enough to be inhaled into the lower respiratory tract or the lungs."
So, based on evidence from a number of sources, what should we look for in a good mask that will protect us from getting sick? The CDC recommends a mask be individually fitted to a person's face to create a seal and one that filters out 95 percent of particles that at least 0.3 microns in diameters. (A micron is 1/1,000th of a millimeter.) This type of mask is called N95.
Health officials say masks can help, but unless the person wearing the mask can ensure a sealed fit, the mask will offer no significant protection. This can be more of a problem for children or men with beards, but if you think it will offer some protection, then, by all means, wear a face mask.
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