Masks may halt the spread of MDR-TB

According to a new study conducted in South Africa, having multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients wear surgical masks all day reduces the likelihood of them transmitting the infection through the air by close to 50 percent.

TB is an infection caused by a strain of bacteria and the disease is typically treated with antibiotics. In the 1990s, cases began to emerge that didn't respond to at least two of the major drugs used to treat the disease, Reuters Health reports.

"It's great to know now that it's very effective," Rod Escombe, a researcher at Imperial College London, said, according to Reuters Health. "I had already recommended it, and it was already suggested by guidelines, but we've never had any evidence before (that wearing a mask works)."

The study was led by Ashwin Dharmadhikari from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. It included 17 patients with MDR-TB who were being cared for at a South African facility. The researchers tested the effectiveness of the masks by asking patients to alternate days wearing a mask and placing the air from the rooms into a chamber with guinea pigs. Nearly twice as many guinea pigs were infected with the air from days the patients did not wear their masks.

"In places where there are high amounts of tuberculosis transmission like South Africa, having easy to use interventions to reduce transmission is really positive," Dharmadhikari said, according to Reuters Health.

Dharmadhikari said that the masks did not completely eliminate infections.

"It's also apparent one should never rely just on masks," Dharmadhikari said, according to Reuters Health.

Approximately 440,000 people a year are infected with TB that is drug resistant.