Demands for surgical masks have been soaring in view of the outbreak of novel coronavirus (nCoV), a respiratory virus. In fact, several parts of China have been seeing a shortage of masks in light of its growing demand. Although the exact characteristics of the transmission of nCoV are yet to be determined, respiratory viruses generally spread through droplets, such as when an infected person sneezes and coughs. And while people have been wearing masks to protect themselves from contracting the virus, experts have raised concerns over the efficacy of such masks.
Some global health experts, including those at John Hopkins University and the University of Alberta, stated that masks may not be effective in filtering out the virus, which is smaller than the pores of the mask. Furthermore, lack of proper disposal of masks or repeatedly using single-use masks also poses the risks of transmitting in fractions.
While there are several types of masks, the surgical mask does the most basic function of protecting one’s mouth and nose. These masks are generally given to sick individuals to prevent their germs from spreading to those around them. Wearing these masks ensures that one is protected against droplet and contact infections, albeit only to a certain extent. If worn too long, these masks may harbour the same pathogens they are worn to protect against.
Commuters, on the other hand, wear N95 masks on a day-to-day basis to guard against pollution and dust, although they are most likely not effective enough to guard against certain smaller pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.
Different masks are composed of different layers and are designed to filter out particles of a certain size. While surgical masks do not provide respiratory protection, N95 masks (which is also a type of surgical mask) is a respiratory protective device.
During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, officials had advised the public to use N95 masks for protection. This came after a study, conducted by a Hong Kong hospital, found that surgical masks and N95 masks, which are designed to block airborne particles, offered an individual upto 13 times more protection against the virus when working with SARS patients when compared to not wearing one.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), an agency of the United Nations dealing with international public health, there's no harm in using masks as it can help prevent the spread of germs from an infected person to healthy person. The global agency recommends it for people who come in close contact with infected individuals.
However, WHO also places more emphasis on other measures, too, irrespective of the mask — such as washing hands frequently with soap and water, using alcohol-based hand sanitisers and keeping hands away from the face, among others. Some experts encourage wearing a regular surgical mask, just to serve as a reminder to not touch one’s face.
As of Sunday, over 36,000 individuals have been infected with the virus around the world with most cases being reported from China. Over 800 people in China have died of the disease. Countries around the world are racing to find a vaccine. Officials in Thailand had earlier reported the first instance of a Thai native, who was tested positive of nCoV, being ‘cured’.