Mexicans put faith in masks -- but do they work?

Apr 28, 2009 By PAUL HAVEN , Associated Press Writer
A man wearing a face mask holds a statue of Saint Jude, the saint of lost causes, outside the Saint Jude Thaddaeus church in Mexico City, Tuesday, April 28, 2009. Despite the church closed doors and calls from authorities to leave due to the swine flu outbreak, hundreds of faithful arrived to pray and pay their respects to Saint Jude at the entrance of the church.(AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

(AP) -- The cloth patches in green, blue and white are everywhere, clamped tight over the mouth and nose of teachers, toddlers, policemen and drunks. Even the statue at the church of St. Jude, patron of lost causes, has been fitted with a light-blue surgical mask to ward off swine flu.

But do they work?

While Mexico has handed out millions of facial coverings, U.S. officials have held off, saying there is little evidence of their effectiveness. Some doctors warn they might even be harmful, causing people to take risks - like venturing into crowds or neglecting to wash hands - in the mistaken belief that the mask protects them.

The ubiquitous masks give an eerie, unsettling air to this overcrowded city, as if 20 million people have entered a scene from some kind of apocalyptic future. They're also a reminder of an equally frightening episode: Technicolor versions of those dotting scratchy black and white photographs from the 1918 Spanish epidemic, which claimed up to 50 million lives worldwide.

Soldiers hand them out at subway stations. Pharmacies and hardware stores can't keep them in stock. Newspapers have begun running front page instructions on making do-it-yourself mouth coverings. President Felipe Calderon proudly boasted over the weekend that more than 6 million masks have been distributed.

"They must be worn when one is out in public or in a closed, crowded space," Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova insisted Monday, while acknowledging in the same breath that the government-distributed masks are too porous to eliminate all risk.

"They still offer enough protection as a public health measure," he offered.

U.S. health officials give very different guidance. The said there is not a lot of evidence that masks do much good, and have pointedly not recommended their use by the general public. is thought to be transmitted in much the same way as seasonal flu, by touching something with the virus and then passing it to the nose or mouth or through coughing or sneezing.

Experts say people who come in close contact with known swine flu patients should wear high filtration masks like those used by health professionals, which are more effective but also more expensive (about 12 pesos or a dollar) and generally unavailable in Mexico City. But even these masks, which filter out fine particles carried in the air, must be used properly to give real protection.

"The evidence that masks work is relatively weak," said Peter Sandman, a New Jersey-based consultant in crisis communication. Still, he was loath to criticize the Mexican government, because mask-wearing also can have psychological benefits.

"It's not dumb to give people things to do, even if those things are only slightly effective, because it will make those who are anxious feel calmer, and those who are too nonchalant take the threat more seriously," he said.

In the streets of Mexico's capital, almost everybody was taking the threat seriously.

Drivers wore the masks while alone in their cars. Young couples strolled down the street talking to each other through the gauzy coverings, and parents fitted small masks over the faces of toddlers and infants.

Some wore the masks like talismans wrapped around their necks rather than over their mouth and nose, more as a point of faith than for physical protection. Others took a comical approach, painting Pancho Villa mustaches or wide, toothy smiles on the mask - but still keeping them firmly in place.

Inside the church of San Hipolito, someone fitted a surgical mask over a statue of St. Jude. Whether as a precaution or to highlight the hopelessness of the effort, the gesture was not enough to stop church officials from canceling a special service held on the 28th of each month to have their statues blessed.

Several hundred people - many carrying statues of the saint - lingered outside the church anyway in the midday heat, undeterred by the warnings blared from a patrol car's loudspeaker: "Disperse! It is dangerous to gather in groups. Disperse!"

Antonio Guzman, a 44-year-old laborer who clutched a blue mask to his face as he pushed through the crowd, said he had come to the church to ask St. Jude for protection against the virus, and for help with work.

"He needs to help us. It isn't fair, all that we have been suffering," said Guzman, wearing a black T-Shirt that read: "FEED THE FEVER."

Remedios Ramirez sold religious trinkets to the faithful, her mask dangling loosely around her neck. Asked why she didn't have it over her mouth, she gestured to a lollypop she was sucking.

"I'll put it back on when I finish," she said. "But I don't have a lot of faith in these masks. It is all in God's hands."

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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User comments : 12

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THEY
5 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2009
I can understand they may not block aspirating the airborn virus, but it would reduce touching your face with your contaminated hands.
docknowledge
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2009
That's exactly what I was thinking, THEY. Masks would reduce impulsive movements to the face, and they are a reminder not to be casual about putting hands to face.

Also, even if they aren't good against flu, lol, they might be helpful against particles in some severely polluted areas...such as...Mexico City, for instance?

But I am slightly puzzled. One is certainly required to wear a mask in certain hospital situations...even as guest. Maybe what's being confused here is whether the masks are effective in certain situations, and whether those situations apply broadly enough to apply to the population at large.

And...let's not forget they're cool to wear, make a change in the humdrum, get people thinking about health. Hard to see much harm in the masks -- except the overconfidence part.
freethinking
1 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2009
One big serous question, why is it being called the swine flu instead of the Mexican Flu? Isn't it normal to call the flu from the nation it originated from, ie. the asian flu, the spanish flue, etc. Are we just being politically correct here?
DonR
not rated yet Apr 29, 2009
It's called swine flu because it's a strain of influenza A that has jumped species from pigs to humans.
Yulia_Rudy
not rated yet Apr 29, 2009
Scientists don't call this virus as "swine flu", they call it for example "H1N1 California 04 2009". And "swine flu" or "mexican flu" decides mass media. They decided to call it "swine flu". DonR told you why. Anyway it's not "swine flu" anymore, because it changed its structure already :(
Bob_Kob
not rated yet Apr 29, 2009
Well when people cough the droplets will be contained. Sounds like a good thing to have on.
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2009
Safety is the first act of security theater. Safety gear is merely costuming. Sales of safety gear is economic stimulus hysteria.
googleplex
not rated yet Apr 29, 2009
The other point is that it reduces them spreading the illness. The original reason surgeons wore masks was to protect the patient (sterile field) than to protect themselves.
I think the masks are a great idea. Whilst obviously they are not a full bio-hazard bubble suit they help. If nothing else they at least remind people that the virus is around and they should wash their hands.
I recall a trip to an amusement park in California sitting at a table in a restaurant. In horror I saw a man cleaning a nearby table for his family using his saliva (spit). By his precise method of delivering the spittle it appeared to be an often practiced routine.
Even if wearing masks has no direct benefit I welcome the psychological impact of reminding people to be clean!
googleplex
not rated yet Apr 29, 2009
Another thought...
These masks are supposed to be disposible or sterilized at least daily. Most people will not spend the money or time to observe clinical standard operating procedure. In addition there is bio-hazard handling procedure for the used masks. People will never observe that. So you have potentially contaminated masks being handled for days, weeks or longer. Could the masks turn out to be significant vectors of H1N1?
Fazer
not rated yet May 03, 2009
Wow, the guy in the photo has his mouth covered, but not his nose.

I have not been sick in two or three years. I attribute it to lots of hand washing.

I wash my hands a lot at work because I get pretty dirty working on construction sites or in drop ceilings and the occasional crawl space.

When I get back to the main office, the bosses have two dogs they bring to work each day, so I wash my hands afterwards any time I stop to pet them, both to get the smell off my hands and to prevent my alergies from acting up, in case I touch my face.

I am sure there are other factors, but I think the hand washing contributes a lot to my not having had a cold or flu for quite some time.

I would think a lot of this comes down to just common sense and responsible hygiene. The masks are good for two main reasons: to keep infected people from spitting and sneezing all over everyone else, and to just generally keep cleanliness on everyone's mind.

googleplex, I suppose it depends on what they do with their garbage. If they feed a lot of it to pigs, like they do in some country in the middle east I heard about recently, then they are doomed!!!
Fazer
not rated yet May 03, 2009
Oh, I forgot to mention: I have always thought money is the worst disease spreader. I used to work as a cashier, and now that I look back, it seemed like we cashiers were always getting sick.

Now I not only don't handle any cash at work, but I use my debit card more when I make purchases, and often wash my hands after handling cash, if it is convenient.

Let's ban paper money...disgusting! :P
dsl5000
not rated yet May 04, 2009
Haha that reminded me of the quiznos commerical...why eat a $5(lady eats a $5 bill) when you can get a sub for $5! ...hope she got sterilized bill or got paid a lot to eat that bill haha...

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