The threat of a worldwide flu pandemic may or may not become a reality, but due to the mutating nature of the avian influenza A (H5N1) bird flu virus, medical scientists, doctors and governments around the world are justifiably concerned that a devastating flu pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu is possible.
The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people around the world. Some researchers estimate that the actual number was between 500 million and 100 million. Similarly, a 1957 Asian flu outbreak killed an estimated 70,000 people in the USA and a smaller USA Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968 killed an estimated 34,000 people. David Nabarro from the World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted that a bird flu pandemic could result in the deaths of between 5 million and 150 million people worldwide, although he later restated this figure based on official WHO estimates of 2 million to 7.4 million deaths. The official WHO estimate is based upon a model developed using data from the 1968 Hong Kong flu outbreak, which was the mildest flu pandemic of the last century.
The 2005 avian bird flu virus is remarkably similar to the 1918 outbreak, although it has thus far only crossed the species barrier from birds to humans in a small number of people who were poultry workers and were exposed daily to the virus in infected birds. The virus is, however, mutating and scientists are concerned that it could quickly develop into a new form that can easily be passed from human to human. Like the 1918 virus, the current bird flu virus causes tissue destruction in the lungs. During the 1918 flu pandemic, most victims choked to death as their lungs dissolved and filled with fluid from the damage inflicted by the virus.
Defenses against Bird Flu in an Outbreak:
- Vaccine. The development of a vaccine is still the best method to avoid a devastating pandemic, but even if a vaccine is developed in the near future, it is not likely that enough vaccine could be manufactured and distributed in time to avoid the deaths of millions of people.
- Tamiflu and other antiviral medications. Tamiflu lessens the severity of the flu and gives the body a chance to defend itself if it is taken within the first two days of the onset of flu symptoms. However, Tamiflu is manufactured in a complex ten-stage process and it can take up to a year to produce a single batch. Tamiflu is currently in extremely short supply and it is doubtful that enough could be produced to help fight a pandemic outbreak.
- Wash your hands, do not touch your face and isolate yourself. Most flu viruses are picked up on your hands and contracted through touching your face or by breathing airborne particles. Washing your hands and isolating yourself from other humans will help, but may not be practical for most people.
- Wearing a bird flu mask. Masks that effectively filter airborne particles and aerosols may provide a strong degree of protection from exposure to the bird flu virus, particularly when no other protective methods are available. Masks that provide this degree of protection are being referred to as "bird flu masks".
Which Masks are Most Effective?
While wearing a mask does not offer complete protection, it does offer some protection. Given that other alternatives may be impossible to obtain once an outbreak has been identified, buying bird flu masks is cheap insurance and one that can offer a fair amount of protection when other reasonable precautions are taken.
Masks that effectively filter small, airborne particles and aerosols (sneezing) are considered to be the most effective. Different official rating standards for particulate and respirator masks have developed in the USA and Europe. Although the official names for the standards differ, the effectiveness of masks that meet the respective standards are very similar.
|USA Standards||Efficiency *|
|European Standards||Efficiency *|
* efficiency rating when tested with .3 micron and above particle sizes
As you can see, not all masks are the same, nor do they all offer the same level of protection against airborne particles. Obviously, the greater the efficiency, the greater the protection against inhaling airborne influenza.
Although not exactly the same, the European FFP3 standard is a close equivalent to the USA N99 filtration standard. A mask meeting the USA’s N100 standard exceeds this and offers protection beyond that of the top European standard. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested the N100 mask along with other precautions and found it to be superior to other methods. Always check any mask that you buy for the proper certification. Masks should be stamped or labeled with the standard to which they were manufactured and tested.
While masks can offer added protection from airborne viruses such as H5N1 avian flu and SARS, there is no guarantee that you will avoid infection. In the case of a flu outbreak, you should therefore take additional steps to avoid exposure, such as washing your hands frequently, not touching your face and avoiding crowds where infected people may be present.
When should you buy a bird flu mask?
When you need bird flu masks, it will already be too late to find them. When the 1993 SARS outbreak was announced, it was very difficult to find masks that offered any level of protection. Even though SARS never struck in the USA, savvy people concerned about their families bought up almost the entire supply of masks. If the avian flu virus strikes the USA, Europe or another major Western country, it will likely be extremely difficult to find these masks. If a full-blown pandemic strikes, it may be impossible to find bird flu masks at any price. Purchasing a quantity of N100 masks now as a precautionary measure is like buying insurance,
just in case the worst case scenario becomes a reality.
Keep in mind the fact that masks like this are considered disposable. You should change to a new mask at least every day to maximize the effectiveness. The quantity that you need to stockpile is therefore dependent upon the number of members in your family and your best estimate for the amount of time an infected area might be quarantined. At least a 30 day supply would not be unreasonable.
Aside from keeping a supply of masks in our home, we also keep five masks in a zip-seal plastic bag in each of our cars. If an outbreak of bird flu or some type of airborne particulate attack occurs, such as anthrax, you may not have time to reach your home before being infected.
Where can these masks be purchased?
N95 masks offer the minimal level of protection, but can be purchased in most major hardware stores. These are not the paper-thin dust masks used for sawdust protection. An N95 mask is approximately 1/8 inch thick and will have the NIOSH N95 designation stamped on the mask. If it doesn’t have a N95, N99 or N100 NIOSH designation, it does not meet the standards and most likely will not offer reasonable protection. The cost for a box of twenty N95 masks is about $20 and well worth the money.
N99 and N100 masks can be purchased through hospital supply houses, companies that sell hazardous materials protection devices and numerous web sites. Remember that when you really need bird flu masks, it will probably be too late to find them in time to offer the protection you seek, so the wise choice is to purchase a few boxes just in case the worst case scenario for bird flu becomes a reality.