Surgical Masks Help Ward Off Flu, Maybe

MONDAY, Aug. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Experts are still debating the usefulness of wearing surgical face masks to ward off the flu, and the results of a new study aren't likely to clear up the confusion.

Researchers in Hong Kong found that wearing a surgical face mask along with copious hand washing can help keep transmission rates for the seasonal flu down, at least among members of the same household. But it's unclear how much the mask adds to the already-proven benefit of good hand hygiene.

Plus, the strategies only worked when started within 36 hours of the patient developing symptoms.

"Our study shows that face masks are useful in households when one person has influenza, to prevent transmission to other household members," said study author Benjamin Cowling, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, The University of Hong Kong. "We did not study the use of face masks in other circumstances, for example for individuals trying to protect themselves against infection in other community settings."

According to Artealia Gilliard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, current guidelines are unlikely to change based on the results of this study alone.

Those guidelines do not recommend the use of face masks in general, but can be "considered" for caregivers and if a novel H1N1 virus (such as the swine flu) appears in the community, Gilliard said. But the first line of defense would be to avoid high-risk situations and avoid being a caregiver.

"The best thing is to still listen to your local health department," said Dr. Scott R. Lillibridge, assistant dean at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health in Houston and executive director of the National Center for Emergency Medical Preparedness and Response.

The CDC-funded study appears in the Aug. 4 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, as does another study finding that the antiviral medications Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) are effective for preventing symptoms of the seasonal flu in healthy adults.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world die each year from the seasonal flu. And the recently arrived swine flu circling the globe has made the task of finding ways to prevent infection more urgent. Many fear the swine flu pandemic, still causing only relatively mild illness, will become more virulent in the fall.

The face mask and hand hygiene study involved 407 people arriving at one of 45 clinics in Hong Kong with flu-like symptoms and who had laboratory-confirmed influenza A or B. Also involved were 794 household members from 259 households.

The patients and their household contacts were randomized into three groups: a control group that received "lifestyle education" only; instruction in hand hygiene methods such as hand washing with soap or alcohol hand rub; and surgical face masks with hand hygiene.

Combined face masks plus hand hygiene helped prevent the spread of the virus, but the benefit was small and only when precautions were started within 36 hours of symptoms appearing.

It's clear that hand washing helps prevent spread of the flu, and CDC guidelines support the practice. It's less clear how much masks matter.

And there are many variables in face masks these authors didn't address, Lillibridge pointed out.

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