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Face masks: benefits and risks during the COVID-19 crisis

The German government has made it mandatory to wear medical masks covering mouth and nose (MNC) as an effective strategy to fight SARS-CoV-2 infections. In many countries, this directive has been extended on shopping malls or public transportation. The aim of this paper is to critically analyze the statutory regulation to wear protective masks during the COVID-19 crisis from a medical standpoint.


We performed an extensive query of the most recent publications addressing the prevention of viral infections including the use of face masks in the community as a method to prevent the spread of the infection. We addressed the issues of practicability, professional use, and acceptability based on the community and the environment where the user resided.


Upon our critical review of the available literature, we found only weak evidence for wearing a face surgical mask with ties as an efficient hygienic tool to prevent the spread of a viral infection. However, the use of MNC seems to be linked to relevant protection during close contact scenarios by limiting pathogen-containing aerosol and liquid droplet dissemination. Importantly, we found evidence for significant respiratory compromise in patients with severe obstructive pulmonary disease, secondary to the development of hypercapnia. This could also happen in patients with lung infections, with or without SARS-CoV-2.


Epidemiologists currently emphasize that wearing MNC will effectively interrupt airborne infections in the community. The government and the politicians have followed these recommendations and used them to both advise and, in some cases, mandate the general population to wear MNC in public locations. Overall, the results seem to suggest that there are some clinically relevant scenarios where the use of MNC necessitates more defined recommendations. Our critical evaluation of the literature both highlights the protective effects of certain types of face masks in defined risk groups, and emphasizes their potential risks.

The knowledge that the use of face masks delays the SARS-CoV-2 transmission is rapidly gaining popularity in the general population. Politicians need guidance on how masks should be used by the public to fight the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. In this review, we summarize the relevant literature on this topic.

“The surgical face mask has become a symbol of our times.”

On March 17th, 2020, this was the headline of an article in the New York Times on the role of face masks during the COVID-19 outbreak. Face masks have become a clothing accessory that is worn every day and everywhere. A variety of shapes, forms, and materials are being used and advertised to the point that in 2020 the business of producing and selling non-medical mask was born.

In Germany, the government has ruled that wearing a face mask is obligatory to protect the population from any risks of airborne illness, according to the constitutional law [1] stating that “Protection must be easily provided to every citizen in the country.”

The aim of this paper is to analyze and critically discuss the regulations of some Federal States in Germany, which require protective masks in public to conform to similar regulations already in place in other countries.

Most masks covering the mouth are named mouth nose covering (MNC) according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI; the German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention) and do not protect against respiratory and airborne infections. In the following review, the term “protective masks” will be used to describe any type of face mask.

The science around the use of masks by the public to impede COVID-19 transmission is advancing rapidly. In this narrative review, we develop an analytical framework to examine mask usage, synthesizing the relevant literature to inform multiple areas: population impact, transmission characteristics, source control, wearer protection, sociological considerations, and implementation considerations. A primary route of transmission of COVID-19 is via respiratory particles, and it is known to be transmissible from presymptomatic, paucisymptomatic, and asymptomatic individuals. Reducing disease spread requires two things: limiting contacts of infected individuals via physical distancing and other measures and reducing the transmission probability per contact. The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high. Given the current shortages of medical masks, we recommend the adoption of public cloth kids mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies. Because many respiratory particles become smaller due to evaporation, we recommend increasing focus on a previously overlooked aspect of mask usage: mask wearing by infectious people (“source control”) with benefits at the population level, rather than only mask wearing by susceptible people, such as health care workers, with focus on individual outcomes. We recommend that public officials and governments strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulation.

Policy makers need urgent guidance on the use of masks by the general population as a tool in combating severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19. Masks have been recommended as a potential tool to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic since the initial outbreak in China (1), although usage during the outbreak varied by time and location (2). Globally, countries are grappling with translating the evidence of public mask wearing to their contexts. These policies are being developed in a complex decision-making environment, with a novel pandemic, rapid generation of new research, and exponential growth in cases and deaths in many regions. There is currently a global shortage of N95/FFP2 respirators and surgical masks for use in hospitals. Simple cloth masks present a pragmatic solution for use by the public. This has been supported by most health bodies. We present an interdisciplinary narrative review of the literature on the role of face masks in reducing COVID-19 transmission in the community.

Wu Lien Teh’s work to control the 1910 Manchurian Plague has been acclaimed as “a milestone in the systematic practice of epidemiological principles in disease control” (3), in which Wu identified the cloth mask as “the principal means of personal protection.” Although Wu designed the cloth mask that was used through most of the world in the early 20th century, he pointed out that the airborne transmission of plague was known since the 13th century, and face coverings were recommended for protection from respiratory pandemics since the 14th century (4). Wu reported on experiments that showed a cotton mask was effective at stopping airborne transmission, as well as on observational evidence of efficacy for health care workers. Masks have continued to be widely used to control transmission of respiratory infections in East Asia through to the present day, including for the COVID-19 pandemic (5).

In other parts of the world, however, mask usage in the community had fallen out of favor, until the impact of COVID-19 was felt throughout the world, when the discarded practice was rapidly readopted. By the end of June 2020, nearly 90% of the global population lived in regions that had nearly universal mask use, or had laws requiring mask use in some public locations (6), and community mask use was recommended by nearly all major public health bodies. This is a radical change from the early days of the pandemic, when masks were infrequently recommended or used.

If there is strong direct evidence, either a suitably powered randomized controlled trial (RCT), or a suitably powered metaanalysis of RCTs, or a systematic review of unbiased observational studies that finds compelling evidence, then that would be sufficient for evaluating the efficacy of public mask wearing, at least in the contexts studied. Therefore, we start this review looking at these types of evidence.

Direct Epidemiological Evidence.

Cochrane (7) and the World Health Organization (8) both point out that, for population health measures, we should not generally expect to be able to find controlled trials, due to logistical and ethical reasons, and should therefore instead seek a wider evidence base. This issue has been identified for studying community use of masks for COVID-19 in particular (9). Therefore, we should not be surprised to find that there is no RCT for the impact of masks on community transmission of any respiratory infection in a pandemic.

Only one observational study has directly analyzed the impact of disposable medical face mask use in the community on COVID-19 transmission. The study looked at the reduction of secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Beijing households by face mask use (10). It found that face masks were 79% effective in preventing transmission, if they were used by all household members prior to symptoms occurring. The study did not look at the relative risk of different types of mask.

In a systematic review sponsored by the World Health Organization, Chu et al. (11) looked at physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2. They found that “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.” However, the review included only three studies of mask use outside health care settings, all of which were of SARS, not of SARS-CoV-2, one of which was incorrectly categorized (it occurred in a hospital, but during family and friend visits), and one of which found that none of the households wearing masks had any infections, but was too underpowered to draw any conclusions (12). The remaining study found the use of masks was strongly protective, with a risk reduction of 70% for those that always wore a mask when going out (13), but it did not look at the impact of masks on transmission from the wearer. It is not known to what degree analysis of other coronaviruses can be applied to SARS-CoV-2. None of the studies looked at the relative risks of different types of mask.

There has been one controlled trial of mask use for influenza control in the general community (14). The study looked at Australian households, was not done during a pandemic, and was done without any enforcement of compliance. It found that “in an adjusted analysis of compliant subjects, masks as a group had protective efficacy in excess of 80% against clinical influenza-like illness.” However, the authors noted that they “found compliance to be low, but compliance is affected by perception of risk. In a pandemic, we would expect compliance to improve.” In compliant users, masks were highly effective at reducing transmission.

Overall, evidence from RCTs and observational studies is informative, but not compelling on its own. Both the Australian influenza RCT and the Beijing households observational trial found around 80% efficacy among compliant subjects, and the one SARS household study of sufficient power found 70% efficacy for protecting the wearer. However, we do not know whether the results from influenza or SARS will correspond to results for SARS-CoV-2, and the single observational study of SARS-CoV-2 might not be replicated in other communities. None of the studies looked specifically at cloth masks.

Reviews and RCTs of Mask Use for Other Respiratory Illnesses.

A number of reviews have investigated masks during nonpandemic outbreaks of influenza and other respiratory diseases. It is not known to what degree these findings apply to pandemic SARS-CoV-2. When evaluating the available evidence for the impact of masks on community transmission, it is critical to clarify the setting of the research study (health care facility or community), whether masks are evaluated as source control or protection for the wearer, the respiratory illness being evaluated, and (for controlled trials) what control group was used.

A Cochrane review (15) on physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses included 67 RCTs and observational studies. It found that “overall masks were the best performing intervention across populations, settings and threats.” There is a similar preprint review by the same lead author (16), in which only studies where mask wearing was tested as a stand-alone intervention were included, without combining it with hand hygiene and physical distancing, and excluding observational studies. That review concluded that “there was insufficient evidence to provide a recommendation on the use of facial barriers without other measures.” MacIntyre and Chughtai (17) published a review evaluating masks as protective intervention for the community, protection for health workers, and as source control. The authors conclude that “community mask use by well people could be beneficial, particularly for COVID-19, where transmission may be pre-symptomatic. The studies of masks as source control also suggest a benefit, and may be important during the COVID-19 pandemic in universal community face mask use as well as in health care settings.”

The Usher Institute incorporated laboratory as well as epidemiological evidence in their review (18), finding that “homemade masks worn by sick people can reduce virus transmission by mitigating aerosol dispersal. Homemade masks worn by sick people can also reduce transmission through droplets.” One preprint systematic review (19) including epidemiological, theoretical, experimental, and clinical evidence found that “face masks in a general population offered significant benefit in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses especially in the pandemic situation, but its utility is limited by inconsistent adherence to mask usage.” On the other hand, a preprint systematic review that only included RCTs and observational studies (20) concluded, based on the RCTs, that there was only weak evidence for a small effect from mask use in the community, but that the RCTs often suffered from poor compliance and controls. It found that, in observational studies, the evidence in favor of wearing face masks was stronger.

Randomized control trial evidence that investigated the impact of masks on household transmission during influenza epidemics indicates potential benefit. Suess et al. (21) conducted an RCT that suggests household transmission of influenza can be reduced by the use of nonpharmaceutical interventions, namely the use of face masks and intensified hand hygiene, when implemented early and used diligently. Concerns about acceptability and tolerability of the interventions should not be a reason against their recommendation (21). In an RCT, Cowling et al. (22) investigated hand hygiene and face masks that seemed to prevent household transmission of influenza virus when implemented within 36 h of index patient symptom onset. These findings suggest that nonpharmaceutical interventions are important for mitigation of pandemic and interpandemic influenza. RCT findings by Aiello et al. (23) “suggest that face masks and hand hygiene may reduce respiratory illnesses in shared living settings and mitigate the impact of the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic.” A randomized intervention trial (24) found that “face masks and hand hygiene combined may reduce the rate of ILI [influenza-like illness] and confirmed influenza in community settings. These nonpharmaceutical measures should be recommended in crowded settings at the start of an influenza pandemic.” The authors noted that their study “demonstrated a significant association between the combined use of face masks and hand hygiene and a substantially reduced incidence of ILI during a seasonal influenza outbreak. If masks and hand hygiene have similar impacts on primary incidence of infection with other seasonal and pandemic strains, particularly in crowded, community settings, then transmission of viruses between persons may be significantly decreased by these interventions.”

Overall, direct evidence of the efficacy of mask use is supportive, but inconclusive. Since there are no RCTs, only one observational trial, and unclear evidence from other respiratory illnesses, we will need to look at a wider body of evidence.

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