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.
Photo: Bob B. Brown/Flickr