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Monday, 17 January 2022 | PRITAM singh


It is an effective and humble tool to win the battle against infectious diseases

The practice of wearing the most affordable protection against viruses or pollution, the face mask, is not a new one. Most Indians may have seen it during the Covid-19 pandemic but it has its roots in the history of medicine and science, dating back to the spread of the 'Manchuria' epidemic in China. Later, face masks were used during the 'Spanish-Flu' that cost over 40-million lives all over the world, and the 'Bombay Fever' during 1919-20.

Wu Lient-teh - a Cambridge educated doctor -first described the facemask as a "prophylactic apparatus" that could be worn by all to protect themselves.For over a century now, it has remained an effective and humble tool to win the battle against infectious diseases.

Science definitelysupports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways. Dr Martin Kirschner, who held the chair for surgery in Heidelberg, first described the necessity of wearing a facemask in 1935 as a 'measure to combat infection'. This paved the way for research on facemasks with varying thickness of cloth. It later proved that "adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of Covid-19 and decrease hospitalizations and deaths".

There are masks for different purposes -- antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-odour. Above all,they should be well-fitting and comfortable on the face.The size of the most common causative agents of infectious diseases -- the virus and bacterium known as pathogens - is in the range of 0.4 microns (about one millionth of a meter) and 0.02 to 0.25 microns. This allows their easy and stealthy transfer from person to person in close proximity. The most effective facemasks have multiple layers of tightly woven fabric-like cotton to act as a 'barrier' against the virus.

The face mask that covers both nose and mouth leaving no gaps limits the transmission of the virus in public places or on public transport like bus, train or plane. A research report says that multi-layer cloth masks are more effective than single-layer masks, blocking as much as 50-70 per cent of exhaled small droplets and particles. The research of NIOSH - National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health -- recommends the most widely available N95 face mask as it filters up to 95 per cent of particles as small as 0.3 microns. It is not-washable, little expensive and needs to be discarded when dirty, damaged, or difficult to breathe through.

Research studies say that having double mask (wearing a cloth mask over the procedure mask) could improve the user's exposure to an aerosol or simulated droplets particles is reduced to the extent of 95 per cent.

While babies are at a much higher risk of severe illness, it warrants that every child of age two and above wear a mask in public places like schools. Children below age two having any breathing problems, or a child who has a condition that would prevent it from being able to remove the mask without help, needs precautionary measures and meticulous care by parents/guardians.

The use of safety protocols like facemasks, vaccination, maintaining physical distancing, etc.,can play a significant rolein mitigating the spread and transmission of Covid-19 and its variants. Measures such as imposition of night-curfews have no evidence of effectiveness.  WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan is of the view that "if 90 per cent of the population usesface masks all the time", there would be a drastic reduction in the transmission of Covid-19. Closure of offices or educational institutions would then be the last resort.

(The writer was formerly with the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun. The views expressed are personal.)

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