Masks only offer about 15% protection says public health expert

Last week the Health Department recommended that South Africans wear cloth masks to help limit the spread of Covid-19.
For weeks there have been mixed messages regarding the wearing of masks and the efficacy in the fight against the spread of Covid-19.


The World Health Organisation has said that masks should only be worn by health workers, those taking care of someone with Covid-19 and people who are coughing or sneezing.

But last week Health Minister Dr Zweli Mhkize suggested South Africans start wearing cloth masks. Saying on Friday, "Wearing masks is important. We want to recommend widespread use of masks. We are recommending that people use cloth masks and just make sure there's a three-layer kind of thing."

Public health expert Dr Kerrin Begg joined CapeTalk's John Maytham to discuss the pros and cons of cloth masks and why it is the WHO may be sticking firm to its stance that not everyone needs to wear a mask.

One of the WHO's big concerns is that any shift towards masks may well limit supplies for health workers.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University
One of the arguments [against wearing] ANY masks is that masks are not a silver bullet solution. They don't protect you 100%.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University
If they are protective it's only in the order of about 10-15%. Some of the studies have gone up to about 20%, but it's not a lot.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University
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Dr Begg says when it comes to public health it's preferable to use evidence-based on community studies rather than laboratory results.

Some of the studies even showed that it [wearing masks] crossed the line into causing harm.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University
So what are some of the arguments against using cloth masks specifically?

People using them incorrectly: so not wearing them properly, touching their face, touching the inside of the mask, taking it off incorrectly...and then leaving it in an open area where it becomes a nidus for infection.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University
Begg says public health teams have been particularly keen to determine whether, if used properly, cloth masks could be useful for specific communities in South Africa:

[We wanted to find out if] for those people...living in environments where physical distancing is so difficult, in informal settlements etc, whether masks would be a safeguard...unfortunately evidence has NOT shown that it's going to make a massive difference.

Dr Kerrin Begg, Public health specialist - Stellenbosch University

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