WHO advises fabric face masks for general public, but warns not to neglect hand hygiene and social distancing
WHO recommends masking up while using public transport, in shops or other confined or crowded environment
The World Health Organization (WHO) has changed its stance on masks. It is now encouraging people residing in regions with a high Covid-19 presence to wear fabric face coverings. It also advises its use in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.
"WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there are the widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or other confined or crowded environments," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a media briefing in Geneva on Friday.
Earlier, the UN Health agency advocated masks for healthcare workers and sick patients and caretakers. They discouraged hoarding such that frontline workers do not fall short of these protective supplies. As more studies on the benefits of masks began pouring in, the WHO changed its recommendations. "In areas with the widespread transmission, WHO advises medical masks for all people working in clinical areas of a health facility, not only workers dealing with patients with Covid-19," Tedros explained.
In areas with community transmission, people aged 60 years and above and those with underlying conditions should consider masking up in situations where physical distancing is not possible, he added. "Our updated guidance contains new information on the composition of fabric masks, based on academic research requested by WHO," Tedros said.
The WHO has provided information on how people can design fabric masks at home. It should have three layers. An absorbent material such as cotton as the inner layer; a non-woven material polypropylene forms the middle layer; non-absorbent material such as polyester or polyester blend makes up the outermost layer. The health agency discourages the use of silk and materials that are stretchy or porous.
"What we are trying to do with the guidance that we're putting out is to provide some parameters on, if you're going to use a fabric mask, here are the best fabrics that you can use based on the evidence that we have," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead for coronavirus response, told CNN.
Masking up alone won't do
Face covering provide additional shielding as it reduces the number of watery droplets escaping an infected person's mouth or nose. But they are not foolproof. "Masks on their own will not protect you from Covid-19 and should only ever be used as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes physical distancing and hand hygiene. The cornerstone of the response in every country must be to find, isolate, test, and care for every case, and to trace and quarantine every contact," Tedros added.
Besides, mishandling masks could also heighten the risk of catching the disease. For instance, people could expose themselves to the virus if they repeatedly use contaminated hands to wear and remove face coverings without washing hands in between.
WHO also warns people that masks can create a false sense of security, leading people to neglect measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing. "I cannot say this clearly enough: masks alone will not protect you from Covid-19. Masks are not a replacement for physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other public health measures," Tedros added.