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Wearing masks could impact on the spread of infectious diseases in hospitals

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Routine mask wearing by nurses and doctors could have an impact on the spread of infectious diseases in hospitals – a problem that has been rife this winter with many NHS staff forced off sick after contracting flu.

Adult mask wearers in the home were four times more likely than non-wearers to be protected against respiratory viruses, including the common cold. The findings, published recently in Emerging Infectious Diseases, have global implications for flu pandemics and other emerging respiratory diseases such as SARS.

‘In a crisis, vaccine development is likely to be delayed and drugs may be in short supply or not available at all,’ said Raina MacIntyre, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at the University of New South Wales.

‘Limited supplies will be directed first to front line health workers, so masks are an important means of protection for the community, who otherwise may be last in line for vaccines and drugs.’

Professor MacIntyre is running a trial of masks in around 2,000 health workers in 20 hospitals in China where acceptance and compliance with masks is currently much higher than in the UK or Australia.

‘Results from this trial could have wide implications for not only pandemic influenza, but a range of communicable diseases spread within hospitals,’ she said.

Professor MacIntyre has also just finished a trial on mask wearing by patients in the community. Commissioned by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, the study was the first randomised trial of masks to be conducted internationally.

Researchers studied more than 280 adults in 143 families in Sydney during the winter seasons of 2006 and 2007. The adults were randomly allocated masks when exposed to a sick child in the household.

Click here to read the study

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