When President Obama officially declared the 2009 H1N1 outbreak a national emergency over the weekend, I thought, “good. Now it’ll force Americans to wear masks when they’re sick, or if they don’t want to get sick, like in Japan.
The Japanese (and other people throughout Asia) have always worn face masks to prevent the spread of illness. It’s partly out of personal interest — so they won’t have to breath in allergens, pollutants or other peoples’ yucky germs. But it’s also out of plain politeness and consideration — to keep your own damn germs to yourself.
H1N1, or as lots of people still call it, Swine Flu, is the first time in my memory in the U.S. that everyone is being reminded of simple ways to stay healthy with hygiene (wash your hands often) and even told how to sneeze or cough (into your elbow). At my office building, hand sanitizer dispensers have magically appeared everywhere from the lobby to the bathrooms. And, there are signs and poster everywhere, including on the door to the bathroom and on the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom, with diagrams showing people how to sneeze into their elbows, and to wash their hands.
I always thought it was gross when someone sneezed or coughed into their hands, which was what our parents taught us when we were told to “cover your mouth,” but then extended their hand in greeting.
And I hate it that many parents apparently don’t teach their kids anymore to cover their mouth — because they don’t do it themselves. I’m always hearing people of all ages hack and sneeze loud and clear, not muffled, in stores and restaurants. I want to smack them and say “do you have no manners?!?” but instead give them a wide berth, or hold my breath as I pass by their cloud of germs.
I’m not exactly a germ freak, but I notice these things. OK, so maybe I’m a mild germ freak.
In Japan, there’s an entire industry that supplies face masks in every color of the rainbow, many different styles and even with fun faces and designs for kids to wear.
Well, the sale of products such as hand sanitizer and face masks is increasing, but I’m not so sure the face mask thing won’t catch on in America after all. After doing some research on their effectiveness, it appears (from no less of an expert source than the Center for Disease Control) that it may keep you from making others sick — hence the politeness factor — but they probably won’t filter out the germs.
Looser face masks are primarily useful for those who are already sick, to prevent spreading the H1N1 virus from droplets expelled during coughing or sneezing, or even particularly heavy or labored breathing. They provide little protection for those trying to prevent catching the virus, but may still be better than nothing if in a setting where you know there is H1N1 present. The reason they offer little in the way of preventing an infection, is that any airborne viruses, such as from those same droplets, can be inhaled through the side of the mask.
Still, maybe there’s an opportunity for an explosion in fashionable face masks to wash over us. At the least, we’d be showing how polite we are. And at the most, maybe — just maybe — we’ll be a little healthier.
Here’s a Japanese commercial with face masks for the whole family:
My mom, who was born in Japan in the 1930s, always wore a face mask while she was sick when we were infants. She was always telling us to wash our hands, don’t pick noses, etc. Our house was so germ-free that as soon as I went to public school I got sick for a year.
My MIL drives me crazy, though. She’s always scoffing at preventatives like hand-washing (never makes my kids wash their hands before eating, for instance, unless they have actually visibly dirty hands) and is always pushing echinacea and other natural “remedies” when we’re sick. I told her if we just washed our hands often, we wouldn’t need the echinacea.
Our doc’s offices have the masks to use for people who are sick. I wish everyone who was sick would wear one and be a little polite in not infecting the rest of us.