Expert says surgical masks a simple but effective pandemic response

Published 27 October 2006

As compared to respirators, citizens find surgical masks comfortable and would therefor be more likely to use them; aerosol transmission the leading cause of infection; price is 10 cents per unit, but enterprising firms should note that U.S. demand alone could reach 20 billion

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. As public health agencies worldwide ready themselves for flu season with yet another shortage of this year’s vaccine, Lawrence Wein of Stanford University believes planners should be looking at the most rudimentary of solutions: the distribution of gas masks and face shields as a response to flu pandemic. The biggest contributors to the spread of of influenza, he wrote this week in a New York Times op-ed, are “droplet transmission, in which an infected person sneezes or coughs directly into the mouth, nose or eyes of someone who is susceptible; contact transmission, in which virus is transferred via hands either directly, say, through a handshake, or indirectly through an object like a doorknob; and aerosol transmission, in which evaporated virus-containing particles are inhaled.”

Face protection, Wein argues, would solve all three problems. By wearing a mask, an infected person could not sneeze on others; uninfected people wearing the mask would be protected from aerosol transmission; and all parties would avoid putting their hand to their mouth, a common catalyst of infection. “As studies show that roughly one-third of influenza transmissions occur before an infected person exhibits symptoms, these precautions should be taken whenever people are in the same room throughout the pandemic period,” Wein wrote.

Wein looked at two different types of face protection: N95 respirators, as worn by construction workers; and surgical masks of the sort worn by dental hygienists. Their efficacy, he found, depends on the extent to which the face filter prevents virus particles from passing through, how tightly the device fits and, how long people can be coerced into wearing them. Surpringly, Wein found the surgical masks to be almost as good as the respirators in all three categories, in large part because they were so much more comfortable that citizens would more willingly wear them (the outbreak of SARS in China a few years ago showed this, too). Best of all, the price is right at the low cost of ten cents per unit, as compared to $1 per respirator.

Investors take note: although ten cents per unit is not much, volume sales could make this a lucrative opportunity. Wein estimates the national demand during a three-month pandemic at ten to twenty billion.

-read more in Lawrence Wein’s New York Timesop-ed