Study finds masking could provide a vaccine-like effect by helping the body generate antibodies.
As countries around the world press on in their race for a Covid-19 vaccine, a new study from the University of California in San Francisco offers one more reason to mask up while we wait: wearing a face mask may help boost your immunity.
The study’s authors compared face masks to variolation, a process by which infected material from a patient is given to a healthy individual in order to create a mild infection and help the body build the resistance it requires. Their research – published in the New England Journal of Medicine – concluded that using masks in the Covid-19 era could achieve similar results.
“Since masks filter out some virus-containing droplets, masking might reduce the inoculum (that is, the viral dose) that an exposed person inhales,” the pair wrote in the journal. The duo added that this ‘limited dose’ could provide a vaccine-like effect by helping the body generate the necessary antibodies to protect the individual from the virus.
Doctors in the UAE have weighed in on the findings, calling them both “highly promising” and “intriguing”, while adding that more research would be required to study the viability of face masks in the absence of a cure.
“The immune system is the human’s armoury against infections,” explained Dr Nikolaos Koutsostathis of Novomed Centers, who specialises in allergy and clinical immunology. “If the immune system can see an enemy such as Covid-19 in small numbers (as happens when wearing a mask), then it can learn how to defeat the enemy without the body actually getting sick. As a result, the body will be prepared to win the next battle with the virus through acquired immunity.”
Variolation, he noted, served as a precursor to the discovery of a vaccination in medical history for smallpox. “It was effective but eventually replaced by vaccination, because it did not offer long-term immunity, and ‘variolated’ people ran the risk of spreading the disease to the uninfected.”
Commenting on the human body’s ability to develop antibodies without a full-blown infection, he pointed out that many people have “common cold infections from rhinovirus or even influenza virus during the winter”, albeit without symptoms. “This is an asymptomatic infection, but they are able to develop an immunological reply to the offending virus. Our immune systems are constantly scanning our body and reacting with its own mechanisms to foreign invaders.”
Dr Emad Arafa, immunology and allergy specialist physician at NMC Specialty Hospital, Al Nahda, Dubai, further stated that this is plausible for most viral infections. “The viral load may not be sufficient to produce an infection with symptoms such as coughing or fever. However, it can still cause an immunological reaction in which antibodies are produced by the body.”
Masks are our best bet
Dr Emad noted that the research from the University of California, among others, reinforces that masks are our best bet in the absence of a vaccine. “They confirm the effectiveness of masks as the best available way to combat the disease, when combined with social distancing and frequent hand washing,” he said.
Having said that, it is critical for people to also observe good mask-wearing practices in order for them to be effective. Speaking to Khaleej Times, Dr Safdar Zabeth, general practitioner at Medcare Medical Centre, Discovery Gardens, said, “I have personally observed people frequently touching their face and nose while attempting to adjust their masks – or even placing their masks in their pockets and then wearing the same masks again. This is not good practice and an easy way to spread the infection.”
He recommended that any adjustment be done using the straps of the masks alone. “Only touch your face and mask when your hands are clean, that is, after you’ve washed or disinfected them.”
The doctors urged residents to consider the toll the pandemic has taken to date. “We must behave with responsibility and think that individuals, our health system, economy, and the whole society has suffered a lot until now due to this pandemic,” said Dr Nikolaos.
Dr Emad echoed him, noting that every one of us has a “social responsibility towards ourselves, our colleagues, families, and even to strangers, to protect them from the virus” during these tough times. “This can only be achieved by wearing masks,” he said.
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