Surgical masks as effective as respirators in protecting against flu
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the differences between using surgical masks and N95 respirators -- protective masks that filter out 95 percent of airborne particles -- to shield health care employees from infection. Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, concluded that surgical masks have an estimated effectiveness within 1 percent of N95 respirators and are not associated with an increased rate of infection for influenza or other respiratory viruses.
After the rise of the H1N1 virus, many health officials have recommended the use of N95 respirators for all health care workers caring for patients with influenza-like illnesses.
"Given the likelihood that N95 respirators will be in short supply during a pandemic and unavailable in many countries, understanding the relative effectiveness of personal respiratory protective equipment is important," said Dr. Mark Loeb, the principal investigator of the study.
About the study. Loeb led a team of researchers who enrolled more than 400 nurses in emergency departments, medical units and pediatric units at eight hospitals in Ontario, Canada, during the flu season last year. The nurses were randomly assigned to two different groups, those who received surgical masks and those who received N95 respirators. In both groups, less than a third of the nurses had received the flu vaccine.
Influenza infection occurred in 50 nurses (23.6 percent) in the surgical mask group and in 48 nurses (22.9 percent) in the N95 respirator group. The researchers concluded that in routine health care settings, particularly where the availability of N95 respirators is limited, surgical masks are as effective in protecting against influenza.
Loeb said the study is valuable because surgical masks are less expensive and more widely available.
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November 2, 2009
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