Surgical Masks and Japan

People visiting Japan during the SARS epidemic may have viewed the sea of masks in Japan and thought that the Japanese were being very careful to protect themselves against SARS. It’s true that some people were, and now Japan has another sea of masks. People visiting Japan may think the masks are due to the new flu outbreaks spreading around the world. Again, some of the masks are.

Visitors to Japan, however, can always see people wearing masks. People wear masks when they are sick so they don’t infect other people, people wear masks when they are healthy so they do not get infected, and people wear masks to protect themselves from the pollen in the air that gives them hay fever. Question enough people as to why they are wearing masks and eventually you will even hear that they didn’t want to put on their makeup that morning, an answer I heard from 19 year-old Mayumi last month.

Medical specialists and the general public around the world appear to be in agreement. Wearing masks prevents sick people from spreading infections. Agreement is lacking, however, when it comes to the effectiveness of healthy people using masks for protection. The general public in Japanese believes they are effective. While I have never discussed their effectiveness with doctors in Japan, I have seen many doctors wearing them in hospitals, doctors- not surgeons. The CDC and WHO both question the benefits masks provide and do not recommend them. The moisture from the wearer also seeps through surgical masks, making them only sterile for an hour or two.

The masks that we see people wear in Japan are masks similar to surgical masks. Surgical masks date back to the 1860s. Today, surgical masks are designed to catch the bacteria coming from the mouth and nose. The masks worn in Japan are similarly designed. The masks will fight the spread of infectious diseases by catching bacteria and reminding wearers not to touch their mouth or nose. People are often infected after touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouth or nose. However, these masks will not protect from airborne viruses such as the current swine flu. A respirator mask is necessary for such protection.

In the United States, the standard for respirator masks is NIOSH N95. Any respirator confirming to this standard will protect the wearer from flu that is airborne. Respirator masks fit tightly over people’s faces, protecting them from airborne particles that could contain viruses. Unfortunately, these masks must be custom fit, are expensive, and are uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, rendering them unsuitable for mass use like surgical masks.

In the long run, the best protection against airborne diseases is to stay away from crowded places and from other people as much as you can. When you cannot stay away, washing your hands with soap and water, covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough and wearing masks are good preventive behaviors.

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