The successful management of an influenza pandemic will be reliant on the expertise of healthcare workers at high risk for occupationally acquired influenza. Recommended infection control measures for healthcare workers include surgical masks to protect against droplet-spread respiratory transmissible infections and N95 masks to protect against aerosol-spread infections. A literature review was undertaken for evidence of superior protective value of N95 masks or surgical masks for healthcare workers against influenza and extraneous factors influencing conferred protection.
Four scientific search engines using 12 search sequences identified 21 mask studies in healthcare settings for the prevention of transmission of respiratory syncytial virus, Bordetella pertussis, and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Each was critically assessed in accordance with Australian National Health Medical Research Council guidelines. An additional 25 laboratory-based publications were also reviewed.
All studies reviewed used medium or lower level evidence study design. In the majority of studies, important confounders included the unrecognized impact of concurrent bundling of other infection control measures, mask compliance, contamination from improper doffing of masks, and ocular inoculation. Only three studies directly compared the protective value of surgical masks with N95 masks. The majority of laboratory studies identified both mask types as having a range of filtration efficiency, yet N95 masks afford superior protection against particles of a similar size to influenza.
World Health Organization guidelines recommend surgical masks for all patient care with the exception of N95 masks for aerosol generating procedures. Because of the paucity of high-quality studies in the healthcare setting, the advocacy of mask types is not entirely evidence-based. Evidence from laboratory studies of potential airborne spread of influenza from shedding patients indicate that guidelines related to the current 1-meter respiratory zone may need to be extended to a larger respiratory zone and include protection from ocular inoculation.