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expert comment clarifying situation with face masks and WHO

There have been reports in the media that the World Health Organisation (WHO) are reviewing their advice on face masks and COVID-19.


Prof Sian Griffiths, Emeritus Professor, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and co-chair of the Hong Kong government’s SARS inquiry, said:

“Current recommendations from WHO, supported by the UK Chief Medical Officer, are that face masks are of use in clinical situations and may also prevent the spread of disease if worn when someone has a cough or symptoms of COVID-19. But there are anxieties about incorrect fit and false reassurance as well as supply. However current guidance from the WHO on use of facemasks is under review in the light of emerging studies that indicate some potential protective benefit from them being worn by the general public. Preliminary studies being assessed to shape future guidance include those on the distance aerosol particles can travel and the potential contribution of face masks as part of a package of measures taken to reduce spread of disease.

“There are undoubted cultural differences in the use of face masks. In countries including China and Singapore it is customary for masks to be regularly worn by anyone with URTI symptoms and at times of pandemic to be worn by the general public – indeed this may be mandatory. In the current climate this difference has been reported as exacerbating  discriminatory behaviour towards those who wear masks as a precautionary measure by those who believe masks are associated with presence of disease. Further evidence based guidance from the WHO may help to resolve this tension.”


Prof David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“As always when new evidence becomes available, WHO will be considering its face mask policies as a routine activity this week and next.  Recommendations will be taken from many different advisory groups, including the external advisory group that I chair, and then WHO will decide if there is enough evidence to merit any changes in policy.  This decision will likely also include other considerations such as availability of face masks globally for use in the two ways it currently recommends face mask use based on existing evidence: for health workers in combination with other personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect health workers; and for persons who fit the definition of COVID-19 to protect others from droplets in their cough or sneeze.”


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