Not all masks are equal when it comes to stopping coronavirus. Here’s what SA experts say

Business Insider SA
  • More and more people have been spotted globally wearing surgical masks in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus. 
  • South African experts said the masks would be effective in stopping the spread of the disease, but should preferably only be worn by people who suffer from respiratory systems. 
  • One expert encouraged the use of more durable masks as typical surgical masks can get wet from coughing and breathing, which reduces its effectiveness. 
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA's home page.

As coronavirus spreads to more countries around the world, thousands of people have been spotted wearing surgical masks, pushing up prices, in a bid to stop the spread of the disease. 

However, some experts in South Africa disagree on the effectiveness of the masks with some calling on higher grade N95 masks to be used. 

Coronavirus, or the Covid-19 virus, was declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in January 2020, a month after it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

So far, almost 83 000 have been diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus, and over 2,800 people have died - surpassing the number of people who died from the SARS outbreak in 2002.

Coronavirus has been detected in Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt, but no cases have been confirmed in South Africa since the outbreak of the disease.

National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ Grace Mapisa, working from the centre’s coronavirus response centre, says wearing a surgical mask is an effective method of stopping the spread of the disease.  

She explains that coronavirus spreads through droplets, and anything that prevents the spread of the droplets, such as a surgical mask, will be effective in preventing its spread. 

However, as paper surgical masks get wet from coughing and breathing, she advises that individuals wear the more durable N95 masks with a breathing valve.  

“However, we need to reiterate that there are no cases of coronavirus in South Africa, and there is therefore currently no need to wear masks to prevent the disease,” Mapisa told Business Insider South Africa. 

Jantjie Taljaard, head of the division for infectious diseases at the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of medicines and health sciences, says typical surgical masks would be sufficient to stop the spread of the disease. 

However, he added that as the disease spreads through droplets, wearing a mask is of little value unless you are in close contact, within one or two metres, of a sick individual. 

Taljaard, therefore, encourages sick people to wear the surgical masks to help stop the spread of the disease in public. 

He says N95 masks are only used in a hospital environment where procedures and treatment may cause the droplets to aerosolize, or break up into microdroplets. 

“The respirators fit very tightly and cannot, however, be used for long periods as it becomes very uncomfortable," Taljaard says, so people tend to not keep N95 masks on for a long period, which then negates any potential benefit. 

Maret Lesch from the Western Cape Health department encourages the use of typical paper masks, as advised by the WHO, which encourages its use only for people with respiratory symptoms. 

After the use of the masks, people should also wash their hands, Lesch said. 

Additionally, Lesch encourages the public to wash their hands often, avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands, avoid close contact with infected people, and cover a cough or sneeze with a tissue and throw it away when used.

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