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WHO responds to Austria face mask ruling

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-03-31 03:16

A senior official at the World Health Organization said on Monday that the WHO does not recommend the mass use of face masks after Austria announced it would require shoppers to wear them in stores in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Austria's decision came more than a week after Europe was declared the new epicenter of the novel coronavirus. Most European countries have not made such a requirement.

"As of the moment these masks are handed out in front of supermarkets it will be compulsory to wear them in supermarkets," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday. He added that the aim in the medium-term was for people to wear them in public more generally as well, according to Reuters.

Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, told a news conference on Monday that the WHO in general only recommends wearing a mask to those who are sick.

He said there is no specific evidence to suggest that wearing masks has any particular benefit. "It does benefit psychologically, socially," he said.

Ryan said the WHO does not criticize the use of masks in public. He was clearly referring to East Asians who are used to wearing masks to protect themselves from air pollution or flu outbreaks.

He said that there is some evidence to suggest a negative effect in the use of masks, citing the risk of them not being properly worn, or fitted or taken off correctly.

He noted the global shortage of masks, and said they must be a priority for frontline health workers. But he said this is not the primary reason for the WHO's position on the use of masks.

Maria Van Kerkhove, a technical lead of the WHO program who spent two weeks in China recently, echoed the view, saying there isn't a lot of quantitative analysis on the subject. She reiterated that masks are necessary for people who are sick and for those who care for the sick.

The WHO guidelines on wearing masks are basically the same as the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (known as CDC). There were reports last week that the CDC might update its guidance shortly, but the CDC tweeted on Saturday that it does not have any updates to add.

George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Science magazine that the big mistake in the US and Europe is that people "aren't wearing masks".

"This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role – you've got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth," Gao said in an article published on Friday.

"Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others," he said.

Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said recently that certain age groups could be required to wear a mask in public if younger US citizens won't heed warnings to stop the spread of the virus.

"If the concern is that asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic younger Americans (millennials) are continuing to spread #Coronavirus because they don't heed warnings, you could require anyone between certain ages to wear a procedure mask when they go out," Gottlieb said a tweet on March 18.

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