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A note for the next pandemic: Face masks might be the way to go after all

January 21, 2010 |  5:54 pm

PassengersWear the face mask? Don't wear the face mask? The question may seem moot now -- what with a decline in H1N1 cases and pharmacies now publicly trumpeting the availability of vaccine against the influenza strain -- but a few months back, it was anything but academic.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have been studying the 2006-07 flu season's effects on 1,437 students living in university residence halls. Some wore face masks (standard medical kind, nothing fancy); some wore masks and used a hand sanitizer; some just did whatever college kids normally would do in such situations. All watched an importance-of-hand-hygiene video.

The findings? That the two face mask groups had fewer influenza symptoms than those in the whatever-college-kids-normally-would-do group.

Previous research has been inconclusive on the effectiveness of face masks. The researchers point out that they asked participants to take such measures at the beginning of the influenza season, just after the campus' first flu case was reported. In other words, participants likely weren't already infected when the research started, as they might have been in other studies.

As for the lessons learned here, the researchers say: "The effect on influenza transmission could
be substantial, particularly early in a pandemic when vaccine supply will almost certainly be limited, as with the current nH1N1 pandemic."

Something to consider. Next time...  

Here's the study, published online today in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. A related editorial points out, however, that hand hygiene "cannot be overemphasized." 

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: These Hong Kong subway passengers weren't taking any chances last spring. 

Credit: Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images  

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