The above quotation is ascribed to Justice Archie Campbell author of Canada’s SARS Commission Final Report. 1 It is a stark reminder that scientific knowledge is constantly changing as new discoveries contradict established beliefs. For at least three decades a face mask has been deemed an essential component of the personal protective equipment worn by dental personnel. A current article, “Face Mask Performance: Are You Protected” gives the impression that masks are capable of providing an acceptable level of protection from airborne pathogens. 2 Studies of recent diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Ebola Crisis combined with those of seasonal influenza and drug resistant tuberculosis have promoted a better understanding of how respiratory diseases are transmitted. Concurrently, with this appreciation, there have been a number of clinical investigations into the efficacy of protective devices such as face masks. This article will describe how the findings of such studies lead to a rethinking of the benefits of wearing a mask during the practice of dentistry. It will begin by describing new concepts relating to infection control especially personal protective equipment (PPE).
Trends in Infection Control
For the past three decades there has been minimal opposition to what have become seemingly established and accepted infection control recommendations. In 2009, infection control specialist Dr. D. Diekema questioned the validity of these by asking what actual, front-line hospital-based infection control experiences were available to such authoritative organization as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 3 In the same year, while commenting on guidelines for face masks, Dr. M. Rupp of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America noted that some of the practices relating to infection control that have been in place for decades, ”haven’t been subjected to the same strenuous investigation that, for instance, a new medicine might be subjected.” 4 He opined that perhaps it is the relative cheapness and apparent safety of face masks that has prevented them from undergoing the extensive studies that should be required for any quality improvement device. 4 More recently, Dr. R. MacIntyre, a prolific investigator of face masks, has forcefully stated that the historical reliance on theoretical assumptions for recommending PPEs should be replaced by rigorously acquired clinical data. 5 She noted that most studies on face masks have been based on laboratory simulated tests which quite simply have limited clinical applicability as they cannot account for such human factors as compliance, coughing and talking. 5