Influenza or flu is the most common viral infection in human and is the best indicator of immunity. People with week immunity succumb and those with strong immunity overcome its infection. Respiratory route or coughing remains the major mode of spread/transmission of these infections from human to human, although in first instance some forms of epidemic flu may take a zoonotic route (spreading from animals to human). Man every time comes up with a number of preventive and control measures to curb them. Face mask use got promoted in 1918 during Spanish flu crisis-the deadliest global pandemic so far. It is said that this type of influenza was so dreadful (50 million people died worldwide) that it terrified generations. Previously too, we have witnessed many epidemics and pandemic flu diseases. These days face mask culture has revived due to the COVID-19 (the spiky invader of human body), which is now a pandemic and has created a havoc in some countries due to its alarming spread and infection rate. Fear is at its peak and apprehensions are growing day by day once it was declared as pandemic by WHO- the worldwide watch dog of health. But sometimes it seems to be an overreacting or just a hype when we know that even common influenza is taking heavy toll of life worldwide. Importantly, the week, older, immunodeficient and immune-compromised human populations are at a greater risk to catch coronavirus infection and die due to its great penetrating power of infecting very deep in the respiratory tract and even nearer organs. That remains its greatest threat in presence of its low mortality rate overall. So precautions and preventions assume highest significance. The positive sign is that people with well-built immune system overcome its infection in a week or two. So our utmost priority should be to take care and strengthen our immune system. The simple mantra is taking healthy food rich in fruits, vegetables and proteins.
Despite the innate immune mechanism of our respiratory cavity to tackle infections, a flu virus thinks in different terms either to suppress or evade the flu fighting cells of our nasal immune cells that is primarily designed by nature to stop the flu viruses at the nasal chamber thereby providing us an ultimate form of security against them. However, everyone looks for a facemask to supplement the protection against airborne infections the best of which is already present in our nasal epithelium naturally. But what actually face masks do for us. Are they helpful in any way? Is face mask culture the part of actual protocol to prevent viral infections and contamination? Or it is just a hulla bulla. Do we have any idea or knowledge how effective are our face masks to ward off viral infections. Can they slow or prevent the spread of viral respiratory diseases or illness. Let us understand that covering mouth and nose with a facemask is no means a respiratory hygiene. Every time a person wears a mask quite often is seen removing and touching his/her nose and mouth and putting it back, that means he is exposing his respiratory tract continuously to infectious agents through the contaminated hands. Another bad side is that the poor quality and substandard masks available in the markets is not even sufficient to give protection against bad smells and pollution, virus is a remote word. Secondly, the gap that remains between nose and cheeks, nose and eyes remains the open entry route for infectious agents present in the aerosols or directly in the air. As the viral load is present in the tiny airborne particles called as aerosols coming deep from the lungs of human beings and hover in the air for a time till inhaled by people. Masks can therefore protect us against larger droplets not tiny ones, but how do we know the filtration level of masks selling in our markets. Are they designed to stop virus entry into our respiratory tract? No, they are not. But the fact is that they do not even filter out the aerosols, the only protection they can provide is against dust and fungal spores. Therefore, wearing a mask gives us protection against pollution not disease. However, wearing a substandard masks even does not protect us from dust or pollution. Some masks have been designed to filter tiny particulate matter in the air. For example, N95 and FFP (filtering face piece) respirators or masks are quite popular in world as a means of highest protection against respiratory airborne infections, however, using them does not mean it demarcates immunologically the wearer from bare faced people, neither they make former immune or nor later susceptible. Host physiology and immunity is of utmost importance in this regard. So face-mask generally do not do the needful for us but only trap the warm air which is conducive for many pathogens instead.
Let us know it that nature has provided us a great and fool proof resistance cum protection mechanism in nasal lining and sinuses generally known as MALT (mucosal associated lymphoid tissue- powerful interconnected immune cells and components to protect us) to shun out the infectious and other agents. And let us also believe it that nature has its own means and ways to regulate life on this earth through a force called as natural selection. Therefore, whatever happens either at regional or global level in the form of a biological catastrophe or illness occurs under the guiding principle of this natural selection. Therefore, influenza or flu (in whatever form it comes- SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Bird flu, etc. COVID-19) is a force of nature, you will get it at any cost despite the face mask culture and other forms of hygiene practices. As the global coronavirus response is in struggling phase due to the hypothesis that coronaviruses are unpredictable, people are scary and frightened. Despite this, jokes and humours are also spreading very fast in social media about COVID-19.
Khurshid A. Tariq is Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, Islamia College of Science & Commerce, Kashmir