As the first confirmed cases of the new Coronavirus strain (officially called 2019-nCov) are now being treated in the UAE, parents in the emirates are understandably concerned about how they can protect their children from catching what can be a deadly virus.
However, while officials in China - where this new strain of the virus originated - are urging citizens to wear masks in public to curb its spread, can wearing a mask prevent you or your child from catching the virus in the UAE?
How does the virus spread?
Since little is known about exactly how the virus is transmitted yet, the Centre for Disease Control is recommending that it be treated like an airborne pathogen, which can be transmitted from human to human via droplets in the air.
Any person who is in close contact (within 1 metre) with someone who has respiratory symptoms (sneezing, coughing, etc) is at risk of being exposed to potentially infective respiratory droplets, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures to limit spread of certain respiratory diseases, including 2019- nCoV, in affected areas.
But not all medical masks work in the same way, and they are not all useful or effective in every situation, so it’s necessary to distinguish which kind of mask we are talking about.
Can a surgical mask help?
Typical surgical masks usually found at pharmacies – the soft, lightweight, gauzy type that you’ll see many people wearing in the Dubai Mall and metro at the moment - are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to protect the wearer against large droplets or splashes of bodily and infected fluids from others, according to the CDC.
But this sort of facemask does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs or sneezes, says the FDA. These facemasks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the facemask and your face.
“There’s no need for healthy children or adults to wear a surgical mask as it may not give full protection,” says Dr Khairunnisa Mattummal, Specialist Pediatrician at Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai. “Worse than that though; it may give a false sense of security to the wearer and they may neglect other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices.”
Wearing a medical mask unnecessarily may also create a “procurement burden”, warns the WHO, meaning that there may not be stocks for those who need them.
But, all the experts agree, that if you are already sick and suffering from respiratory symptoms, it is a good idea to wear a medical mask to help avoid spreading your germs to others — especially if you will be in confined spaces like a crowded train carriage or doctor’s waiting rooms.
“If someone is already sneezing or coughing and will be around other people, they should wear a surgical mask to help reduce the risk of transmission,” says Aster clinic’s Dr Mattummal.
Can the N95 mask help?
In contrast to an ordinary surgical mask, the N95 is a heavy-duty respirator with a hard casing, designed to fit tightly around the nose and mouth area. When worn properly N95 masks block out 95% of airborne particles, according to the CDC – however, they can be very uncomfortable, can make it more difficult for the wearer to breathe, and those who wear them are required to be trained in how to use them properly.
“The Centre for Disease Control Atlanta USA (CDC) recommends the use of the N95 face mask to be worn by healthcare professionals,” says Dubai-based Aster Clinic specialist paediatrician Dr Mattummal.
Although N95 respirators are sold to the public, the CDC is very clear that guidance about wearing the N95 respirator is not intended for non-healthcare settings (e.g., schools) or to persons outside of healthcare settings.
Furthermore, there is currently no N95 mask that is approved for use in young children; there are not actually any international certification standards for the use of the mask on children yet, according to the Ministry of Education in Singapore, (where face masks are often employed to combat the city’s periodic haze). Those N95 masks that are available may even pose a suffocation risk for children, due to the reduction in the volume of air available for them to breathe.
According to the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “N95 respirators are not designed for children or people with facial hair. Because a proper fit cannot be achieved on children and people with facial hair, the N95 respirator may not provide full protection.” The FDA also points out that even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.
However, the CDC concedes that N95 masks may be appropriate for non-healthcare-related persons who have compromised immunity or who may be at increased risk of severe illness from influenza or other respiratory diseases. They advise that you consult with your health care provider for more information about when to use N95 Respirators at home or in the community.
Best practice if you do wear a mask:
If, after reading this, you do decide you want to wear a medical mask, appropriate use and disposal is essential to ensure they are effective and to avoid any increase in risk of transmission associated with the incorrect use and disposal of masks. The following information on correct use of medical masks is from the World Health Organisation and derives from the practices in healthcare settings:
- Place mask carefully to cover mouth and nose and tie securely to minimise any gaps between the face and the mask;
- While in use, avoid touching the mask;
- Remove the mask by using appropriate technique (i.e. do not touch the front but remove the lace from behind);
- After removal or whenever you inadvertently touch a used mask, clean hands by using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water if visibly soiled
- Replace masks with a new clean, dry mask as soon as they become damp/humid;
- Do not re-use single-use masks;
- Discard single-use masks after each use and dispose of them immediately upon removal.
- Cloth (e.g. cotton or gauze) masks are not recommended under any circumstance.
Other ways to keep your family protected
- Wash hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- If soap and water is not available, use a hand sanistiser with 60% alcohol or more
- The UAE department of health recommends you avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat)
- Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness
- Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues
- Do not travel if you develop any illness symptoms. The symptoms of coronavirus are: sore throat, fever, cough, headache, shortness of breath and pneumonia. If you develop any of these symptoms you should stay hoe and avoid contact with others, and seek medical attention.