While Singapore ramps up its precautionary measures in light of the​​ MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus) outbreak in South Korea, we highlight two key prevention measures that anyone can adopt now. During an infectious outbreak, many people will first think about wearing a face mask. However, such masks are just one part of an overall infection control strategy that should also include frequent hand washing and responsible behaviour.

What you should know about face masks

Face masks provide a physical barrier to prevent contaminants and pathogens from entering your nose and mouth. Conversely, they protect others from your own nose and mouth secretions. The two common types of face masks are:

Surgical masks

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When worn properly, a surgical mask helps block out large particle droplets, splashes or sprays that may contain germs. It is however unable to filter very small particles and its loose shape offers less protection than a properly fitted N95 mask.

Surgical masks are intended for single-use only. If your face mask is damaged or soiled, replace it with a new one.

N95 mask

Once properly fitted, the N95 mask (also known as an N95 respirator) should have no air gaps. Besides blocking splashes, sprays and droplets, the N95 mask is also capable of filtering very small particles such as viruses and tuberculosis. The ‘N95’ designation means that the respirator has been approved by NIOSH, a US occupational health and safety federal agency, and can block out at least 95 per cent of small test particles. This makes the N95 mask ideal for infection control purposes.

An N95 mask is reusable but should be replaced when it gets soiled or distorted in shape.

It is important to note that using an N95 mask requires added effort in breathing and may cause discomfort, tiredness or headaches. For most users, this does not pose any serious dangers.

However, people who already have reduced lung volumes or breathing issues, e.g. the elderly, people with lung or heart conditions and women in their later stages of pregnancy, should stop using the N95 mask immediately if they feel any discomfort.

Those with severe lung or heart problems and who have difficulty breathing at rest or on exertion should first check with a doctor before wearing a N95 mask.

As a precaution, women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy are advised not to use the N95 mask for more than a short duration each time. N95 masks are not certified for children use. They also cannot protect men with facial hair as it prevents a proper seal.

The importance of frequent hand washing

“The simple act of frequently and properly washing your hands remains the most effective protection against infection,” says Dr Maciej Piotr Chlebicki, Senior Consultant, Department of Infectious Disease, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group. Viral and bacterial infections are often transmitted either through hand contact or commonly touched surfaces. To properly wash your hands, you should:

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  2. Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well. Be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Continue rubbing your hands for 20 seconds (roughly equivalent to the time it takes to hum ‘Happy Birthday’ twice).
  4. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel or air dry.

If soap and water are not available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser (with at least 60 per cent alcohol) is your best alternative for hand washing. It quickly reduces the number of germs on your hands, but is ineffective in removing dirt.

Monitor changes in your health

Paying close attention to changes in your health, especially if you’ve recently returned from an overseas trip, can go a long way in preventing an outbreak.

Singapore health authorities are closely monitoring the recent outbreak of MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus), a new SARS-related virus. If you experience flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, cough or sore throat, within 14 days after returning from South Korea or the Middle East (especially Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), you should:

  • Seek medical attention and inform the attending physician of your recent trip;
  • Avoid visiting loved ones in a hospital, as warded patients are more susceptible to infection.

Ref: Q15​​