Are face masks helpful?

Dr. Khurshid A. Tariq
These days face mask culture or surgical mask use is in vogue due to the pandemic flu infection of coronavirus-the spiky invader of human body. Fear is at its peak and apprehensions are growing day by day since it has been officially declared as pandemic by WHO. Too much is being spoken about it and too much information is overflowing through electronic and print media.
But it sometimes seems to be an overreacting or just a hyperbole or hype when we know that even common influenza has a more mortality rate as compared to COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus. However, the concern is that week, older, immuno deficient and immuno-compromised people are at a greater risk to get coronavirus infection and subsequentlymay die due to least available resistance and power to overcome the coronavirus virulence in them. That remains its greatest threat and scare despite its low mortality rate as compared to other respiratory viral infections of human. So precautions and preventions assume highest significance.
Nature has provided us a resistance cum protection mechanism in nasal lining and sinuses in the form of MALT (mucosal associated lymphoid tissue- powerful interconnected immune cells and their components/molecules) to shun out the infectious and other air borne agents getting entry into respiratory tract. Besides, the hair like nasal vibrissae of nasal epithelium are sufficient to filter large particles from inhaled air. Even the respiratory tract is colonised by useful microbiota that help us in protecting from harmful pathogens. However, despite this innate immunity of our nasal tract to tackle diversified infections, a flu virus thinks in different terms either to suppress or evade the flu fighting mechanism of our nasal epithelial cells and tissues. They introduce genetic errors in them which are the novel or new strains of human infections to give a flip to our immune system and this is the beauty of working of viruses against our immunity. Similarly, our immune system too learns to adopt to the chemistry of novel viral strains, however it takes time till then we manifest the disease symptoms hence we come to know about a new infection for example COVID-19. Finally it subsides till a new strain emerges on scene and new epidemics is declared.
However, either common people do not know it or believe it, therefore, everyone looks for a face mask for a protection or safety against viral infections.Or it can be just a dekha dekhi or just a mad cat race which we usually do for other matters as well in our society. Therefore, it just becomes a part of our culture without fulfilling its actual purpose of prevention or safeguarding against pathogens. How effective are our face masks to ward off viral infections or other pathogens?Can they slow or prevent the spread of viral respiratory diseases or illness. Even top range masks do not work against pathogens. Is face mask culture the part of actual protocol to prevent viral infections and contamination? No it is not, it is just a Hullabulla, and the actual measures should be based on avoiding the contaminated surfaces and persons, which is very less done. The irony is that wearers of face mask are frequently seen shaking hands and not caring to maintain a reasonable distance from other people. We must know that contaminated hands than air provide the most potent source for corona group of viruses. Therefore, wearing a face mask can’t protect us from contaminated infection obtained through other means like sharing, hand contacts or any other physical contact. Another problem is hygienic maintenance of face mask which is hardly practiced by a wearer, doesn’t it prove as another source of infection as it can be contaminated by respiratory droplets and airborne pathogens.Continued use of same mask every day too is not safe. If we are habitual of using a mask we should change it everyday as a proper preventive measure.
Then what actually face masks do for us.Are they helpful in any way? Or we are just spending money for no immediate benefit at all.Let us understand that covering mouth and nose with a facemask is no means a respiratory hygiene. Every time a person wears a mask quite often is seen removing and touching his/her nose, mouth and eyes, putting it back, that means he/she is exposing his respiratory tract or other open mucosal areas continuously to infectious agents through the contaminated hands. Another bad side is that the poor quality and substandard masks available in the markets is not even sufficient to give protection against bad smells and pollution, corona virus or any other virus is a remote word then. Secondly, the gap that remains between nose and cheeks, nose and eyes after wearing a mask remains an open entry route for infectious agents present in the aerosols or directly in the air. Masks can therefore protect us against larger pollutants not ultramicroscopic live objects. Secondly, how do we know the filtration level of masks selling in our markets?We all know the ordinary fabric masks selling from Rs. 20 onwards. Are they designed to stop virus or other pathogenic entry into our respiratory tract? No, they are not. But the fact is that they donot even filter out the aerosols, the only protection they can provide is against dust and spores, if they even do so.
Therefore, wearing a mask gives us a false protection against disease.Further, wearing a substandard masks even does not protect us from a pollutant or pollen.Even some masks like N95 and filtering face piece respirators have been designed to filter tiny particulate matter in the air to provide highest protection against respiratory airborne infections, however, using them does not mean it demarcates immunologically the wearer from bare faced people, neither theymake former immune or nor later susceptible.Host physiology and immunity is of utmost importance in this regard. The only benefit of wearing them is preventing the outflow of expiratory volume to minimise its air dispersal, but it proves a sort of blessing in disguise because the warm air trapped in between the mask and respiratory tract proves very conducive by creating humid environment for many pathogenic microbes which prove the source of autoinfection to the wearer.
(The writer is an assistant professor of Zoology at Islamia College of Science and Commerce, Srinagar.)