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Could wearing a face mask help “generate immunity” from COVID-19?

Closeup portrait of a young African American woman with facial mask in the studio on a white background.
Closeup portrait of a young African American woman with facial mask in the studio on a white background.

Health experts and organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have been urging people to wear face masks for months to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. And now a new comment posted in New England Journal of Medicine theorizes that the use of population-wide face masks may have additional benefits, namely, making you less sick if you catch COVID-1

9 and allowing a small amount of the virus to pass through and possibly activate protective “immunity” against the coronavirus .

It is worth noting that these are only proposed theories. But “if this hypothesis is confirmed, universal masking could become a form of ‘variolation'” – referring to a now outdated and risky practice in which patients were exposed to a small amount of smallpox scabs containing the variola virus to trigger an immune response – “this would generate immunity and thus slow the spread of the virus in the United States and elsewhere, pending a vaccine.”

The experts in the commentary also suggest that the severity of a COVID-19 infection is related to the amount of virus patients are exposed to.

The role that face masks play

Dr. Brian Garibaldi, director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that more research is needed to prove these hypotheses. But he calls the theory that wearing the mask could allow the presence of very small viral particles that then generate some protective immunity against the coronavirus “an intriguing possibility.”

Face masks help protect people by effectively filtering out the “vast majority” of viral particles, Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford Health Care. But no mask provides 100% protection (the coveted N95 masks filter 95% of airborne particles), which means that small amounts of viruses can still get through.

Dr Monica Gandhi, co-author of the commentary, theorizes that this minimal exposure to the virus could lead to “asymptomatic or mild infections” – rather than more severe ones if the person didn’t wear a mask – and could provide “immunity shortly. term”. (However, scientists still don’t know how long immunity lasts after a coronavirus infection.)

“Masks will significantly reduce the amount of COVID you may come into contact with, but may not completely block it if you enter an area where [an infected person] he might sneeze, ”explains Garibaldi. If you wear a mask in that scenario, “you just get a little exposure and it may not be enough to make you sick or ill at all, but it could trigger your immune system. So if you come in contact with the virus again, you may have an immune response “.

While any exposure to the coronavirus sounds understandably frightening, experts explain that it’s not just about exposure to the virus, but also about how much (the viral load) and for how long. “There is good data on the risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] it is the product of the amount of virus in the air times the number of minutes or hours you are exposed to it, ”explains Winslow.

Gandhi, professor of medicine and associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine at UCSF / San Francisco General Hospital, says, “Our theory is that masks have a great advantage, not just in reducing transmission. but also possibly decrease the severity of the disease. “

However, some experts are skeptical of the theories without further research. “It feels like a leap,” Saskia Popescu, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona (who was not involved in the comment) told reporter. New York Times. “We don’t have much to support him.”

Popescu added that in addition to wearing masks, “we still want people to follow all other prevention strategies,” such as social distancing and hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds (or the use of disinfectant for hands).

Other experts have expressed concern that people may misinterpret the hypothesis to indicate that the masks are not effective. As Gandhi puts it: “There are so many benefits of face masking, and even though we know it’s a hard thing for the American population to digest, it really seems to have so many [ways] which helps. “

Masks as “best defense”

Gandhi says that when the CDC first published guidelines to the public on the use of masks, it “got the message wrong” by focusing on the fact that “masks protect others”. “They’re right about protecting others,” he says, “but that message didn’t really work. It would have helped if we had said that. [earlier on] that the masks protect you is others. It really protects you from transmission. “

The CDC guidelines on masks have evolved as the scientific community has learned more about the coronavirus. More recently, while testifying before a Senate subcommittee hearing on Sept. 16, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield called face masks the “best defense” we have against COVID-19, as reported by CBS News. Redfield also said face masks could be even more effective than a vaccine, which is not expected to be available until mid-2021.

“I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is safer to protect me from COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because [the vaccine] it can be 70 percent effective, “Redfield said.” And if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine won’t protect me. This face mask will do it. “

But Gandhi notes that wearing masks is only an “intermediate step to get to that vaccine”. Meanwhile, she says, the multiple benefits of wearing one make her feel “hopeful”.

“This has been a really scary time because there is a sense that there is no control, and it gives me a lot of hope and optimism that something as simple as wearing face masks … can provide us with some control over it. it’s something we can do. “

Garibaldi agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “We should wear a mask because it’s the only way we’ll have transmission under better control until there’s a vaccine. The most important reason for wearing a mask is that it will save. lives. If we all disguised ourselves right now and stopped the absurdity of masks as a political statement, we would save hundreds of thousands of lives in the next six months. “

As Gandhi notes, COVID-19 is a “deadly disease for some”, adding: “Anything we can do to both decrease the people who contract it and decrease the severity of the disease is a win-win for everyone.”

For the latest news and updates on the coronavirus, follow in https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have any questions, refer to the file Center for Disease Prevention and ControlIS WHO’s resource guides.

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