Given the nature of the recent emphasis on the importance of wearing a face mask, we revisit the question of why keeping the mask on the face is essential by asking a scientist who has been researching the use of face masks to prevent infectious diseases for several years.
As the coronavirus spread continues in Australia, the importance of wearing masks has increased significantly. It is now mandatory to wear masks in Melbourne, while recommended in New South Wales. Retail stores like Bunnings and Woolworths are asking their customers to wear masks in various areas.
Dr Abrar Chughtai, an Epidemiologist and Lecturer at UNSW in infectious diseases has been studying the effectiveness of masks ( and personal protective equipment) and how they assist in stopping the spread of infections. He was also part of the first-ever study of cloth face-masks.
What is the function of the mask?
Dr Chughtai explains the two primary functions of the face mask.
Self-protection: “Suppose I am a healthy person and I want to avoid the risk of getting the virus. Therefore, by wearing a face mask, I am protecting myself.
Stopping the spread (Source-control): “I am sick and I don’t want to make other people sick. Therefore, by wearing a mask, you are using a prevention method to help avoid other people to get the virus.”
Which mask is better: surgical or cloth mask?
While many people use the available surgical masks, others use face masks made of cloth.
Dr Chughtai says health professionals have to wear masks depending on their job and tasks while in the community, it is different.
"Many studies show that surgical masks are more protective compared to cloth masks because of better filtration of infectious particles."
However, he says that one has to be pragmatic about the situation, namely the availability of surgical masks for the community.
“If one purchases a surgical mask and uses it, that is fine, but if you can't find it or afford it, then a cloth mask is also a good option especially for the community to deal with the virus spread."
He further says that there is limited research on wearing a scarf or a bandana for protection and if they really help.
Although medical masks are better, cloth masks do provide reasonable protection if they are three-layered and able to properly cover the face.
Dr Chughtai says that in order to deal with pandemic everyone is striving to stop the spread and following social distancing, hand hygiene, and other safety measures to protect each other.
“Masks are one of the interventions to stop the COVID-19 spread.
“Initially, the mask was not given much importance at the initial stages of the outbreak. Till February earlier this year, coronavirus pandemic was being treated similar to the influenza pandemic, and WHO (World Health Organisation) does not recommend wearing a face mask in that situation. The mask was not considered for mandatory wearing in the US, UK Aus or in Europe.
"However at later stages, when we realized that apart from the ways the flu spreads, the coronavirus can be spread in several ways, which is commonly known as ‘asymptomatic’ transmission. Hence the policy shifted towards wearing a mask.
“For example, if I have the infection, I will take precautionary measures to stop the virus spread. In the case of coronavirus, it is being estimated that around 40% of people are asymptomatic, which means they are carriers of COVID-19 but they do not show symptoms yet they can transmit the virus.
It is essential to wear a mask because if you are asymptomatic, you will not have the symptoms but you can still pass the coronavirus to another person.
In Victoria, face coverings are mandatory outside the home for people in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire while in New South Wales the government is strongly recommending people wear masks in high-risk situations.
Dr Chughtai says that another factor is community transmission, which is the spread of the virus in communities of a particular area or city.
If community transmission is high, then wearing a mask is essential. Otherwise, it is still recommended to wear a mask.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus