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The Importance of Face Masks from the Epidemiology Perspective

Let’s talk about the importance of wearing a face mask during this pandemic. Face masks are uncomfortable, annoying, and no one likes wearing them. So, are they really necessary? Let’s think about other public health interventions that are uncomfortable, annoying, and that no one likes to deal with.

  • Motorcycle helmets. Motorcycle helmet effectiveness in preventing death during an accident increased by about 8% between 1982 and 2002. That doesn’t sound like much, but it equates to ~2,400 lives that were saved between 1993 and 2002 because of improvements in helmet technology that led to that 8% increase1.
  • Mosquito nets. Mosquito nets help to prevent malaria. According to the Against Malaria Foundation, you need to put up between 100 and 1000 nets in order to save the life of one child2. However, according to the CDC, nets were shown to reduce the death of kids under the age of 5 by ~20%3. That’s HUGE. Finally, nets were shown to dramatically reduce malaria cases and deaths by preventing ~451 million cases between years 2000 and 20154.
  • Seat belts. While your risk of dying from a car accident is low (0.94 people died per 100,000,000 miles driven in 2017)5, seat belts are a large part of that. Seat belts are estimated to reduce the risk of death by 45% and saved 14,955 lives in 20176.

These public health interventions are so ingrained in our lives that most people don’t even think about them. They are things that you already do that cut the risk of death and the number of lives lost even though at one point they were newly uncomfortable, annoying, and no one wanted to deal with them. Face masks fall into this category too. It’s annoying and uncomfortable to wear a face mask but it can and does save lives when everyone does it.

While we have yet to pinpoint an exact number regarding how much properly and consistently wearing a face mask reduces transmission of COVID-19, even if it’s a small number, as demonstrated above, small numbers can easily translate into thousands of cases averted and lives saved.

To me, that’s beyond worth the inconvenience and discomfort that wearing a mask while in public causes me. So, while wearing a mask isn’t my favorite thing, for the time being I’m more than willing to do it to try to protect those around me and prevent even more people from getting sick and dying.

**Disclaimer—there are legitimate reasons why a person may not be able to wear a face mask. For example, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with an advanced COPD diagnosis, etc.  But, the rest of us should be hopping on board the face mask train!

 

References

  1. US Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Motorcycle Helmet Effectiveness Revisited. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/809715#:~:text=motorcycle%20helmets%20are%2035%20percent,effective%20in%20preventing%20all%20injury.%E2%80%9D
  2. Against Malaria Foundation. Why nets? https://www.againstmalaria.com/WhyNets.aspx
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Malaria. Insecticide-Treated Bed Nets. https://www.cdc.gov/malaria/malaria_worldwide/reduction/itn.html
  4. Bhatt, S., Weiss, D.J., Cameron, E., Bisanzio, D., Mappin, B. et al. (2015). The effect of malaria control on Plasmodium falciparum in Africa between 2000 and 2015. Nature, 526, 207-211. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4820050/
  5. US Department of Transportation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts: 2017 Data. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812805
  6. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2019, March). Lives saved in 2017 by restraint use and minimum drinking-age-laws (Traffic Safety Facts Crash•Stats. Report No. DOT HS 812 683). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Available at https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/ Public/ViewPublication/812683