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Misused Facemasks Could Cause More Infections Than They Prevent

Medical experts advise that a cloth face mask must be discarded after 30 days of use and 30 washes. While the disposable one is disposed of after a single-use. However, several people are rewashing disposable masks and using them multiple times. Others have damaged or unfitting pieces of cloth masks whose elastic bands have become loose and threadbare, but tie them behind the ear to give it a snug fit.
16 Feb 2021 18:10
A resident in Gulu wearing a mask with a weak elastic band. Photo by Caroline Ayugi

Audio 5

A section of the Ugandan public is wearing facemasks that no longer protect from the dangers of contracting COVID-19. Instead, the masks they are using are riskier than not using one, mostly because of prolonged use and irregular washing.

Because COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that travel into the air when one coughs or sneezes, face masks have been promoted as a barrier to prevent respiratory droplets from reaching others. Studies show that a good quality mask,  worn over the nose and mouth, can prevent and cut down chances of infection by up to 70 per cent, and prevent the spread of other related illness-causing germs.

Medical experts advise that a cloth face mask must be discarded after 30 days of use and 30 washes. While the disposable one is disposed of after a single-use. However, several people are rewashing disposable masks and using them multiple times. Others have damaged or unfitting pieces of cloth masks whose elastic bands have become loose and threadbare, but tie them behind the ear to give it a snug fit.

Ojok Jackson, a resident of Layibi cubu in Gulu district got one face mask from the government in June 2020. With two others that he bought during the lockdown, he keeps alternating and washes them only when they are visibly dirty. Similarly, Irene Lanyero, a resident of Bunga in Kampala, bought three face masks in May 2020, and this is all she has been using, wearing each of them for at least a week before washing it. 

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Sharmila Mohammed, a hairdresser in Buziga,  a suburb of Kampala, said she has six cloth face masks and washes them after one or two uses. She, however, does not plan to buy new ones anytime soon, because she believes that they are still good since they are reusable.   

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According to medics, many of the masks in use cannot protect users against the threat of COVID-19, especially if they have lost their original shape after repeated use and exposure. The fabric masks are also said to become less effective, the moment they lose the absorbent layer and become porous.

They equally observe that while new, fresh masks offer the most security and efficiency, already used masks do much less, only filtering out less than 60 per cent of viruses and irritants. The World Health Organisation also advises that this kind of mask should only be used once and thrown away or disposed of as soon as it becomes  damp

Abel Ogwang, the founder of Arodis, a dry-cleaning outlet in Gulu, notes that sometimes they get face masks in the pockets of their clients, and can tell that they have been worn more than once without washing, and used for more than a month. Agwang notes that people are less likely to buy new cloth masks unless they have misplaced or lost it.

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Dr Michael Cankara, a dermatologist in Gulu district, says people could get other infections other than COVID-19, when they use any kind of mask, longer than they should. He likens the cloth face masks to underwear, which should be washed every day. 

Dr Cankara advises that the cloth face mask should be used for a maximum of one month and replaced, because the daily washing wears out the protective material on the mask, rendering it less effective in protecting the user against COVID-19 infections.

Dr Felix Bongomin, a lecturer at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, in the Faculty of Medicine at Gulu University says that the only way Ugandans can protect themselves from contracting the virus, amid increasing cases, is to wear masks the right way, and by wearing both the medical and cloth mask when going to high-risk places such as a hospital.

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Dr Joseph Baluku, an infectious disease specialist at Mildmay Uganda, says when a cloth mask is worn, the air from the mouth and nose gets trapped on it, making it damp. This dampness, he says, creates a fertile ground for bacteria to breed on the mask, hence, the need to wash after every use.

Dr Baluku says people who wear masks repetitively without washing can get infections such as pneumonia, and infections of the upper airway such as rhinitis (inflammation and irritation of the mucus membrane inside the nose, caused by viruses, bacteria and allergens).

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Dr Baluku adds that no study has been done to specify when to dispose of a cloth mask, but it is important that users of cloth masks throw them away once they have become translucent or started developing holes.

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Cumulatively, Uganda has registered 40,055 cases since March 2020, with 14,520 recoveries and 328 deaths.