Rethinking Healthcare

TB research in defense of those embarrassing surgical masks

TB research in defense of those embarrassing surgical masks

Posting in Technology

Surgical masks may look funny, but researchers have found that masks cut transmission of tuberculosis nearly in half.

Are surgical masks are really worthwhile? Reuters reports that a team of Boston researchers can now say "yes." They've found that surgical masks cut tuberculosis transmission nearly in half.

Doctors regularly recommend the masks, but the Center for Disease Control has lacked solid evidence to support their use.

The team from Brigham and Women's Hospital studied a South African ward of 17 patients with multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), isolated in the ward for three months. All of the patients wore surgical masks every other day.

The researchers pumped air from the ward into two different cages of 90 guinea pigs. Guinea pigs have a similar susceptibility to MDR-TB as humans. One cage got ward air on the days patients wore masks, the other cage got ward air on the days patients didn't wear masks.

When the three months were up, 69 of the 90 guinea pigs who'd breathed air from the mask-free days had TB. Of the the guinea pigs who breathed ward air on days when patients wore masks, only 36 of the 90 animals tested positive for TB infection.

While the masks clearly did not prevent all infection, the study supports the use of surgical masks as a simple inexpensive way to greatly reduce the spread of TB.

The researchers suggest that since the masks can carry a social stigma, hospitals and clinics could require all patients to wear them to reduce shame on the part of infected individuals.

[via Reuters]

Photo: Bob B. Brown/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure