National

Britain, Japan at odds on face mask merit

Key U.K. medical official calls Asia's mainstay protective wear merely a false reassurance

LONDON (Kyodo) Britain appears to be at odds with Japan over the usefulness of face masks to help combat the spread of swine flu.

While Japan is advising the use of masks to help stem the spread of any potential outbreak of the virus, Britain doubts their effectiveness for the general population and has omitted their use from any public health advisories.

Indeed, a senior doctor who advises the British government claimed Tuesday that the masks are merely providing “false reassurance.”

Surgical face masks are a common sight in Japan and other parts of Asia for sufferers of colds and flu, and Europeans are often surprised when they first see them being worn on subways and in public places.

Following the outbreak of swine flu across the globe, the Japanese government has been advising people to gargle, wash their hands, stay away from crowded areas and wear masks.

And it would appear the Japanese public has heeded the advice, with many travelers and airport staff donning the masks.

However, Britain is doubtful about the usefulness of the general public wearing the masks, given that they need to be changed on a regular basis, and is only looking at issuing them to health professionals.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has said that “available scientific evidence does not support the general wearing of face masks by those who are not ill while going about their normal activities.”

But the government is “urgently” looking into increasing stockpiles of face masks for health workers who are dealing with patients infected by swine flu, he said.

Dr. Rosemary Leonard, who sits on the board of Britain’s Health Protection Agency — an independent organization that advises on preventing infectious diseases — said she doubted their effectiveness with the general public.

She told the Daily Express newspaper Tuesday that after several hours of use, the masks become damp through respiration and start to become porous, thereby potentially letting any virus in or out.

If they are used, they need to be changed every few hours to be effective and also disposed of efficiently to prevent the virus from spreading, she advised.

“Everyone would need a new one twice a day, so we would need a phenomenal amount. There is no scientific basis that they work and it is false reassurance,” she said. “Money could be better spent on antiviral medication.”

The British government’s current advice is to make sure people always wash their hands after sneezing and also dispose of tissues immediately after they have been used.

Despite the government’s position on masks, suppliers in Britain have reported a surge in inquiries from potential buyers. Providers of antivirals have also noted a significant increase in business even though the government has supplies for at least 50 percent of the population.

A man and woman in Scotland who recently celebrated their honeymoon in Mexico are Britain’s first two cases of swine flu.

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