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Take caution, but you don’t require that face mask

Health & Science

When the Chinese government initiated a lockdown in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, there was an upsurge in the demand for face masks in the country. Can wearing a face mask protect you against coronavirus? If it is a regular face mask, the answer is no.

With the confirmation of a coronavirus case in Kenya, some people have embarked on a mission to acquire face masks as a preventive measure. Though the scramble to get masks is understandable, the benefits that healthy people may get from wearing the mask is likely modest.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend people who are not infected to wear face masks to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including Covid-19.

Though masks are effective at capturing droplets, which is a main transmission route for coronavirus, only people who are sick with Covid-19 should wear them to reduce the risk of infecting people around them.

Also, healthcare workers or those taking care of the sick should wear the face mask to reduce the chances of the disease being passed on.

In fact, if you are not sick or taking care of people who are, wearing a mask comes with downsides.

Face masks can be uncomfortable, so you may find yourself frequently adjusting it. Or you might take it off to eat or drink and then put it back on. That defeats the purpose as you will be contaminating the mask by touching it frequently.

The simplicity of these recommendations is likely unsettling to people anxious to do more to protect themselves, but a rush to buy masks could prevent the people who need them most, especially health care providers, from getting them.

It is important to note that face masks have a specific lifespan. While some have longer lifespans or replaceable filters, the most common masks in the market are disposable and single use.

If you are still committed to buying the masks, the three to choose from are N95, N99 and respiratory masks.

The N95 is the most practical as it protects from 95 per cent of air particles while the N99 offers 99 per cent protection. The downside however, is that the mask cannot be worn for long as it is difficult to breath through.

The respiratory masks are more expensive, making them a less attractive option for those working on a tight budget.

Jonah Manjari, the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) CEO says the authority has a manufacturer who can produce the masks on short notice.

Last week, Manjari said the authority has face mask suppliers on standby and confirmed that in the event the virus was detected in the country, two million masks would be readily available. These include the N95 masks for health workers.

The CDC however advises that the best way to prevent coronavirus infection is through proper hand washing.

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