Sunday, December 17, 2006

Larry Wein --- Terrorism, Bird Flu, and N95 Masks

"DESPITE all the attention given to anthrax and smallpox and potential weapons of mass destruction, pandemic influenza is probably the world’s most serious near-term public health threat. "

This is the way that Larry began his NYTimes OpEd Piece on the Threat of H5N1 Influenza. Larry is famous for his work on terrorism, especially the economic balance of threat and defense. Larry brings energy, originality, and lots of common sense to important problems that are often left entirely in the hands of beltway bandits.

Please do read Larry's piece. I'll only slice out one fact --- specifically one that reverses what I had earlier assumed. It has to do with the effectiveness of N95 Masks versus hand hygiene. The bottom line in that for the highly pathogenic viruses like H5N1, the role of hand hygiene does not seem to be nearly as important in preventing infection as it is for the rhino virus of the common cold.

The good news is that the weight of evidence is that N95 masks are likely to substantially decrease an individual's probability of infection. This has a double benefit if masks are widely used since the epidemiological rates would also decrease.


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