Mask claims fly in face of science

The following op-ed appeared in today’s Taipei Times.

A mask at the side of a basketball court at National Yangming University.

In June 1918, as it became evident that a deadly strain of influenza was spreading through military cantonments in the US, a group of the nation’s premier medical scientists visited Camp Grant to conduct an inspection.

Constructed just the year before, this huge army training center was populated by 57,000 mainly young recruits — “farm boys with straw colored hair and flush cheeks” as described by John Barry in The Great Influenza, his terrifying account of the Spanish Flu.

It was an epidemic waiting to happen.

Though the camp pathologist Joe Capps had noted signs of “a different type of pneumonia” surfacing, the staff at the camp and the team of inspectors had yet to gauge the true extent of the danger.

Still, in response to this and other respiratory diseases, Capps introduced gauze masks to the infirmary.

Aside from some minor tweaks, there was nothing revolutionary about the masks themselves. They had been in use for more than 20 years at that point, making their debut with the discovery of viruses in the 1890s.

This came as germ theory finally displaced the belief that disease was spread by toxic air known as miasma, a view that had held sway in the West for two millennia.

Others had already conducted studies, but what was different about Capps’ experiment into the efficacy of masks was that they were worn by patients.

“So far as we can learn, the use of the face mask for patients had never been practiced. In a hospital where each patient is confined to a separate room, there is no reason for masking the patients. But in hospital wards where, even with cubicles, patients must mingle and expose one another to respiratory infections, the face masks on theoretical grounds promised protection,” wrote Capps in a paper for the Journal of American Medical Studies in August.

The experiments yielded such positive results, particularly in preventing cross-infections, that the masks became standard issue for patients and the staff treating them.

Yet, just weeks after the publication of the paper, influenza had torn through Camp Grant. The first 100 men to be diagnosed were all issued masks and isolated, but within days more than 4,000 men were ill.

By early October, more than 400 men had died. Devastated, the camp commandant shot himself. The masks had failed spectacularly. On a national level, in general population, this was even more evident.

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