Masks may offer 'false sense of security' against Wuhan virus, say medical experts

Masks may offer 'false sense of security' against Wuhan virus, say medical experts

Tourists in masks at Jewel (2)
People are seen wearing protective face masks at Jewel Changi Airport (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Masks may offer a "false sense of security" if they are used wrongly by people protecting themselves against viruses, medical experts said.

There have been long queues at retailers and pharmacies across Singapore, with people buying face masks as the Wuhan virus continues to spread globally.

Masks should be used by people who don't feel well and are coughing, so as to protect others, said the World Health Organization's (WHO) head of mission and representative to Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore Dr Jacqueline Ying-Ru Lo. 

“There are so many things you can do in addition to wearing a mask and must do in addition to wearing a mask,” she told CNA Digital chief editor Jaime Ho for CNA’s Heart of the Matter podcast.

“Wearing a mask alone is not the solution to prevent getting infected.”

LISTEN to the full podcast episode on the Wuhan virus

As of Thursday (Jan 30), there were more than 7,800 confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus across 20 countries. More than 7,700 cases are in China, where there have been 170 deaths from the virus.

In Singapore, there are 10 confirmed cases of the coronavirus – all travellers from Wuhan.

READ: Wuhan virus in Singapore: The first 7 days

READ: Human spread of virus in three countries outside China worrying: WHO chief

Concerns about the Wuhan virus are increasing demand for masks here, with some retailers reporting they have run out of masks.

Sellers on e-commerce sites like Carousell are offering masks for up to 20 times the retail price.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong – who is co-chairing a multi-ministry task force to address the Wuhan virus situation – said on Thursday that the Government would provide each household with four masks.

He added that the masks should only be used if someone feels unwell.

"Use it only if you are unwell and have to go out to see the doctor," Mr Wong said. 

"That is the reason for the masks, and this is the reason why we are doing this one-time exercise to distribute it to Singapore households and to assure people that if you really need to, the mask is available for you.

"Remember, at the end of the day, masks do not confer automatic protection against the virus. It is not something that you can wear and automatically get protected."

READ: Supply of masks in Singapore 'enough' if managed properly: Chan Chun Sing

Also speaking on the podcast, Professor Dale Fisher, who chairs the WHO’s Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network added: "Masks, I think by and large, offer a false sense of security in the community.

"Healthcare workers are trained how to use them, how to dispose of them properly, when to use them."

"I see a lot of people that might have a mask but it might be on their forehead and it might be under their chin."

People may not know how to wear masks properly, said Prof Fisher, who is also a senior consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases at the National University Hospital.

They might touch the masks and then touch their eyes or other parts of their face or shake hands with others, he said, adding that such actions may cause people to spread respiratory viruses to others.

"If you are going to wear a mask, you shouldn't touch it. You should remove it carefully and then you should wash your hands afterwards," Prof Fisher said.

"I'd like to discourage masks in the community. I think they're excellent in the healthcare setting where trained people look after sick people," he added.

Professor Leo Yee-Sin, executive director of the National Centre of Infectious Diseases, agreed with Prof Fisher and said a "false sense of security, possibly, is worse".

“There are many ways to protect individuals. Masks are only one of them," she said.

"If the mask gives you a false sense of security and you forget about the rest (of the steps) that you need to take, then I think it is the potentially worst situation.”

Unnecessary use of masks could lead to a shortage of masks for those who really need them, such as people who are sick or potentially sick, during an outbreak.

“In a new novel outbreak situation, where the recommendation is that people who are sick or potentially sick should wear a mask, and there are no masks available for them, that could be counterproductive,” she said.

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Source: CNA/za(mi)

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