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Surgical masks protect from flu as well as N95 respirators

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
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Results of a new study show that surgical masks are equally effective as N95 respirators for protecting health care workers from influenza. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), compared the effectiveness of surgical masks and N95 respirators, finding that surgical masks protect from influenza and other respiratory viruses.

Compared to N95 respirators, surgical masks offered influenza protection within one percent of the more expensive N95 respirators that could also be in short supply during an influenza pandemic.

Dr. Mark Loeb, who led the study and a professor in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University says, "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.”

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Two groups of nurses working in emergency departments, medical units and pediatric units at eight hospitals in Ontario during the 2008-09 flu season were recruited for the study comparing N95 respirators to surgical masks. One third of the 446 nurses had received influenza vaccine, in both groups.

Between the two groups, 23.6 percent of the nurses wearing the surgical masks developed flu, and 22.9 per cent wearing N95 respirators were diagnosed with influenza. Diagnosis of flu was confirmed via nasal swabs.

"It's certainly good to know that the protective effect of a surgical mark appears to be, based on our data, similar to the N95," said Dr. Loeb, who is an infectious disease physician and microbiologist, recognized nationally and internationally for his research on SARS, West Nile Virus and influenza.

The study concluded that surgical masks are equally as effective as N95 respirators in routine health care settings for protecting against influenza. The findings that surgical masks offer protection from flu are particularly important for countries who may not have access to N95 respirators and experience influenza pandemic.

Materials from the McMaster University are used in this report.