MUMBAI: Masks have emerged as the most important non-pharmaceutical intervention in containing the spread of Covid-19, along with physical distancing and hand washing.
Even 75% mask adherence in a population can lower Covid-19’s reproduction number to less than 1, without resorting to lockdowns, studies published this week showed. Reproduction number, or the R number, is the number of people that an infected person can pass the virus on to. A figure of less than 1 is needed to slow the spread of the disease.
“If widespread facemask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine,” said Richard Stutt of Cambridge University’s Department of Plant Sciences, lead author of the study paper. The study was based on the theory that the coronavirus can be transmitted through airborne droplets when talking, coughing or sneezing. The researchers assessed various scenarios of facemask adoption combined with periods of lockdown.
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They found that when people wear masks in public, it is twice as effective at reducing the R number than if masks are worn after symptoms appear. Complete mask adherence, along with occasional lockdowns, can prevent a resurgence for the next 18 months, by when a vaccine should be out, they said.
The World Health Organization, which initially did not recommend the use of masks to contain the spread of Covid-19, changed its view earlier this month.
WHO said this week that even though there is no high quality or direct scientific evidence to support widespread use of masks by healthy people, it has advised that governments across the world should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress transmission.
What changed WHO’s views were new studies on pre- and asymptomatic transmission, a growing compendium of observational evidence on the use of masks by the general public in several countries, individual values and preferences, as well as the difficulty of physical distancing in many contexts. “It might sound too simplistic a solution, but wearing masks helps contain transmission,” said M Seshadri, a physician from Tamil Nadu who advocates the use of masks to fight Covid-19. “Someone of Mahatma Gandhi’s stature should take up wearing the mask as a social movement… That I feel is the need of the hour.”