The World Health Organisation (WHO) has once again said there is no evidence that wearing a mask protects you from contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus, but it supports the decisions of governments who recommend the practice.
It did state, however, that masks assist in reducing the spread of COVID-19 when worn by those displaying symptoms of the virus.
This follows uncertainty which arose around wearing personal protection equipment in South Africa, due to conflicting information from provincial and national health departments.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s guidance on wearing masks also conflicted with previous advice from the WHO.
The WHO previously said that surgical or medical masks cannot protect against the spread of the coronavirus on their own, and there is no evidence that they protect those who do not have the virus.
It has now reiterated that position, but added it is considering whether to recommend the wearing of masks for the general public.
WHO evaluating guidance
WHO health emergencies programme executive director Mike Ryan told USNews the WHO was having an open debate on the subject of wearing masks.
However, it still officially recommends that only people who are sick or taking care of others who are sick at home wear masks.
“We can certainly see circumstances in which the use of masks, both homemade or cloth masks, at the community level may help in an overall, comprehensive response to this disease,” Ryan said.
“And we will support governments in making those decisions based on the situation they find themselves in terms of transmission, based on the context in which they’re dealing and the resources that they have at their disposal.”
He said that masks do not protect the person wearing them, but they do prevent sick people from spreading the virus.
“The evidence is quite clear that the wearing of a mask in public doesn’t necessarily protect you, but if a sick person wears a mask, then it is less likely that they may infect others.”
CDC recommends masks
The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has altered its guidance to recommend the wearing of face masks by the public.
“We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (asymptomatic) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (pre-symptomatic) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” the CDC said.
“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity – for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing – even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.”
“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” it added.
Like the WHO, however, the CDC stressed the importance of social distancing, hand-washing, and good hygiene practice to protect against the spread of the virus.
Both the WHO and CDC state that surgical masks and N95 respirators should not be worn by the public, as these are critical supplies which must be reserved for healthcare workers.
“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC said.
South African guidance
Mkhize has stated that wearing masks is one of the best ways to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“There is no question about the fact that the masks are actually one of the best ways of preventing the spread of the infection,” Mkhize said.
“We recommend them in particular where people have any cough or symptoms and in situations where social distancing is difficult.”
The Western Cape health department, however, said that wearing a mask does not help to protect you from the coronavirus – and can actually increase the risk of infection.
“Scientific evidence proves that by wearing a mask, if it is not needed, you may put yourself at higher risk because you fiddle with the mask and then transfer germs from your hands to your face,” it said.
MyBroadband reached out to the WHO regarding its updated stance on the wearing of masks by the public, but the organisation did not respond by the time of publication.