In what Australian researchers say is a world-first clinical trial, surgical masks have been found to be a cheap and effective front-line weapon against epidemics such as swine and avian flu. A team at the University of New South Wales says masks have an important role to play especially when vaccines are unavailable.

Study provides scientific evidence
Australian researchers say their trial provides the first scientific evidence that surgical masks greatly reduce the risk of contracting contagious respiratory illnesses, including swine flu or even the common cold.
The study commissioned by the Australian Department of Health and Aging analyzed the effect that close contact with sick children had on about 300 adults.
The research team was led by Raina MacIntyre, a professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology at the University of New South Wales.
She says the results show that surgical face masks have an important part to play in protecting public health.
"They do show that there is clinical effectiveness of masks and that if a pandemic were to take off that masks are a potentially effective way of preventing transmission and, you know, right now we do not have a matched vaccine. It will take a minimum of eight weeks - possibly up to 12 weeks - before we have a matched vaccine," MacIntyre said.  "And (in) that period we need to look at all available, other measures to prevent the transmission of influenza."

How does virus spread?
Experts say that the new H1N1 swine flu virus is spread the same way as the other forms of the disease - through sneezes and coughs and by touching contaminated surfaces.

The Australian study pointed out that while there has been strong public acceptance of surgical masks across Asia, less than half the Australians who participated in the trial kept their masks on despite being exposed to sick children.
Other research has shown that few hospital doctors and nurses in Australia wear such protection at work.
A larger study into the effectiveness of face masks has been carried out in China and results will be published shortly.
In Mexico, where the swine flu first appeared, it is believed to have caused the deaths of more than 100 people. Cases have since been found in the United States, Canada and Europe. No cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Australia, but there are about 20 suspected cases spread throughout the eastern states of New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania.