Coronavirus: Face masks sell out but experts say they won’t prevent spread of deadly virus

Leading UK health and hygiene professor says he would not wear one if outbreak came to London

Jane Dalton
Thursday 30 January 2020 17:26
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People are rushing to buy face masks to try to protect themselves from the coronavirus in the UK, but health experts are doubtful about how effective they are.

Human-to-human transmission of the virus has been confirmed in Japan, Germany and Vietnam, of the 15 countries where people have fallen ill.

The UK does not yet have any confirmed cases of coronavirus, but the Boots website has sold out of a six-pack of “safe & sound” surgical face masks, with a note saying no further stock will be received.

A box of 50 masks is also sold out and also marked as not being restocked.

On Amazon, a pack of 12 “anti-virus flu” surgical face masks is sold out, with the retailer saying it does not know when or whether it will be back in stock, although other masks are available on the site.

A branch of B&Q in London appeared to be low on stocks of dust masks, with racks empty on Wednesday evening.

However, experts say surgical masks may still allow bacteria to reach the face because they are too loose to seal off the nose and mouth, and very small particles can pass through the paper. Viruses may also reach the eyes.

Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Independent: “There’s little evidence that they are very effective. They’re more beneficial if you have a virus and don’t want to pass it on than to prevent catching anything.”

People touch their faces often, allowing bacteria to get close to the eyes, although masks do at least prevent people touching their mouths, he said. But masks do need to be changed frequently.

“Better ways of preventing infection are washing your hands with warm water and soap, not touching your eyes or nose, and if you cough, cough into a tissue that you put in the bin.”

Prof Whitworth said he himself would not use a mask even if coronavirus came to London.

China has reported a 29 per cent spike in coronavirus deaths, bringing the toll to 170, as the number of confirmed sufferers rose to 7,711 on Thursday.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which says the “whole world needs to be on alert” over the coronavirus, is poised to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency.

Three Japanese people who returned from China have the virus, two of them not displaying any symptoms before testing positive.

UK nationals brought home from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, will be quarantined for 14 days. The provincial government there has bought more than 3 million face masks.

In Hong Kong and the Philippines, long queues formed outside stores with supplies.

In Britain, health officials are still trying to trace about 2,000 people who flew into the country earlier this month.

Boots said it was working to get more face masks in stores and online, which it hoped would arrive over the next week, but meanwhile they could be ordered at pharmacy counters.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment, and B&Q has been contacted for comment.

Nathalie MacDermott, of King’s College London said masks meant people were not coughing or sneezing into their hand so were less likely to spread viruses when touching surfaces. But she added: “The very basic, flimsy surgical mask offers limited protection because the fit may be inadequate and they can become moist quite quickly through the act of breathing in and out.

“They were not designed to protect the wearer from becoming infected with a virus, they were designed to be worn by surgical staff to protect a patient being operated on from any viruses or bacteria carried in the nose and mouth of operating theatre staff.”

N95 respirators, a stronger type of mask designed to filter out pollutants, offer more protection than surgical masks, according to the New Scientist, but may also make it more difficult for a person to breathe, so could be dangerous for someone showing symptoms of infection, which include coughing and shortness of breath.

The WHO’s advice on avoiding coronavirus includes hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices. A poster says: “If you choose to wear a face mask, be sure to cover mouth and nose – avoid touching mask once it’s on.

“Immediately discard single-use mask after each use and wash hands after removing masks.”

A Boots spokeswoman said: “The best way to help prevent catching a virus is by making sure you regularly wash your hands with soap, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to prevent transmission from surfaces, especially after blowing your nose, sneezing and coughing.

“Antiviral hand foams and gel can also be useful when you are out and about.”

Health experts also advise people when they cough and sneeze to do so into their sleeve to keep their hands clean.

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