Health D-G: Malaysia awaiting WHO advisory on masks, recommendations must be backed by evidence

Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said Malaysia is still waiting for the World Health Organisation’s updated guidelines on the use of surgical masks. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said Malaysia is still waiting for the World Health Organisation’s updated guidelines on the use of surgical masks. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, April 5 — Malaysia is still waiting for the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) updated guidelines on the use of surgical masks, Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said today.

Speaking at his daily press conference without wearing one, Dr Noor Hisham said Malaysia took on an evidence-based approach when making health recommendations and will decide later if it should be compulsory for Malaysians to wear masks when outside their homes.

“For us (the Health Ministry), if you have symptoms, then by all means put on a mask.

“Now the question is whether the public (everyone) should wear masks, but if you are exposing yourself to the public, perhaps you should.

“Again, we need to look into evidence first in terms of whether we really need to wear a mask I think wait for WHO guideline,” he said when fielding questions about the usage of masks.

This comes after Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said it supported government initiatives to require or encourage the public use of masks.

“We can certainly see circumstances on which the use of masks, both home-made and cloth masks, at the community level may help with an overall comprehensive response to this disease,” he was quoted saying.

This marked a major shift from its previous stance during the early days of the pandemic.

Dr Noor Hisham nevertheless said the ministry has advised all healthcare personnel and frontliners to wear masks during public interaction.

He also said the ministry has no objections whatsoever to those who want to wear masks, particularly when they are out in public.

Masks have been a controversial issue in the Covid-19 pandemic due to the dissonance between official recommendations and the realities of life with the disease.

From the WHO’s advisory uploaded on their website, mask wearing should only be limited to when one is coughing, sneezing or caring for a person suspected to have Covid-19.

According to WHO Infection, Prevention and Control consultant Christine Francis, a surgical mask cannot protect against Covid-19 infection when used alone and should consequently be limited to specific cases.

It added that masks were only effectively when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Despite these recommendations, however, some authorities have taken it upon themselves to enforce the use of masks, leading to public confusion.

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