Can masks prevent the spread?

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Monkeypox

Face masks played a key role in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Wearing it was mandatory in many countries and is still common around the world.

Now another virus is making headlines: monkeypox.

Monkeypox is a rare viral infection usually only found in areas of west and central Africa. However, more than 1,000 cases have been recorded in 29 countries in recent weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For most people, the virus is not dangerous – most make a full recovery. However, as the world emerges from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, discussions circulate about how best to prevent its spread.

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A stock photo shows a monkeypox rash and a woman wearing a mask. There is evidence that the virus can be airborne, meaning masks could prevent its spread.
iStock/Getty Images

Monkeypox and coronavirus are very different, and most media coverage of monkeypox focuses on it being caught only through direct contact – although it requires more research, there is evidence that it is spread through sex and other close contact.

However, the CDC recently updated its guidance on viruses, including recommendations for those infected to wear masks. This raises a little-discussed question: Can monkeypox also be airborne? And if so, can wearing masks prevent the spread?

How airborne is it?

Airborne transmission occurs when a virus travels through the air in the form of small respiratory droplets caused by coughing or sneezing.

Most cases of monkeypox can be traced back to a patient who has had direct, close contact with an infected person or animal. In some cases, however, this was not the case – which means that the transmission must have been aerial.

In a 2017 study during an outbreak in Nigeria, scientists found two healthcare workers contracted the virus without being in contact with the patients they were treating. In these cases, masks likely could have prevented transmission.

Since the recent outbreak, scientists have stressed that not enough is known about the virus to determine how exactly it is transmitted. Although it appears it can be airborne, scientists believe it still cannot be sustained over long distances.

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A photo shows a man with a mask. The CDC has updated its guidance on monkeypox and masks.
Sibway/Getty

Should I wear a mask?

The CDC recently updated its guidance on masks and monkeypox. It issued an update advising travelers to wear a mask to protect themselves in countries where monkeypox has been spotted. However, the New York Times reported that it then took out that guide, stating that it “created confusion”.

However, the CDC still advises that those infected with monkeypox wear a surgical mask, “especially those who have respiratory symptoms” such as a cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath.

The CDC also advises that if this is “not feasible,” other household members should wear a mask to protect themselves. At this stage, she also advises healthcare workers to protect themselves with a mask.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Health also issued a statement last month saying that “masks can protect against monkeypox and other viruses circulating in the city,” and advising people not to wear them in most public settings to wear.

So far, however, there are no recommendations for the general public to wear a mask specifically to prevent the spread of monkeypox. Most mask guidelines remain in effect due to COVID-19, which spreads much more easily through the air.

Update 6/8/22 6:29 AM ET: This article has been updated to include an image.

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