Harmonising Face Mask Standards

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The ECOWAS task force should speed up the process of producing a face mask that is acceptable to all

Ever since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the current outbreak of COVID-19 a global pandemic, demands for face masks of different types and hues have hit the roof. In Nigeria, the guidelines on easing the lockdown issued by the federal government and several states in the country have made the use of face masks in the public, including banks and markets, mandatory. The mask and other articles of protective clothing are therefore in high demand as people seek to avoid spreading or contracting the novel coronavirus. Those who disobey the directive contend with security personnel who have turned it into another avenue for extortion and brutality on the roads.

A face mask is a protective piece of clothing which covers the mouth and nostrils. It is designed to protect the wearer from large-particle droplets, sprays and splashes as well as prevent the spread of potential infectious respiratory secretions to others. It is not for fashion; it is a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19. But today, there are different shades of these mouthpieces across the country. They vary from the disposable surgical masks to respirators like N95 and N100, which reduce the wearer’s exposure to tiny particles in the air, including bacteria and virus. The other types are the non-medical, re-useable face masks made from cotton, polyester, wood and other fabrics and designed in different colours to the taste of the user.

Some Nigerian tailors have keyed in to this demand for face masks as well as fill the gap created by the global shortage for personal protective equipment (PPE). The Abia State government has in particular empowered tailors in Aba, the commercial nerve centre of the South-East, to mass produce these essentials, just as the garment factory in Cross River is also doing reasonably well. This is a commendable move that speaks to the ingenuity of our people. That has also encouraged others across the country with all manner of face masks now sold on the streets.

While we understand the compelling case for face masks in the public, there has been a compelling argument to harmonise standards for its production. Leading the efforts in this direction are Nigeria, Ghana and other countries within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The Director-General, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, Osita Aboloma, disclosed recently that the agency has been talking with all other 14-member countries of the commission to harmonise the standard for production of face masks.

This will ensure quality as the region intensifies the fight against the fast spreading virus, stretching the capacity of public health facilities and putting the lives of many at risk. But it should not take eternity for the task force to come up with standards that will be acceptable to all and mitigate further spread of the pathogens. For a start, this regional initiative can learn a lesson from the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) on standards and production of the most effective mask against coronavirus. The United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also standardised the N95 face masks with minimum filter capacity for catching viruses as small as 0.3 microns.

But we must also tread carefully in handling this issue by taking a cue from the advice of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to the public on the use of barrier face masks. NAFDAC has reinforced the position of WHO that non-medical face mask cannot prevent the spread of COVID-19 or reduce the spread of infections as it can only be effective if used widely in conjunction with other measures. Some of these measures include social distancing, not touching the face, eyes or mouth, thorough washing of hands with soap for 20 seconds and use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

Given the state of our healthcare delivery system in Nigeria today, it is trite to say that to defeat COVID-19, the conventional wisdom that prevention is better than cure should be embraced by all.

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NAFDAC has reinforced the position of WHO that non-medical face mask cannot prevent the spread of COVID-19 or reduce the spread of infections as it can only be effective if used widely in conjunction with other measures