Has the WHO properly listed the “adverse effects” of masks against Covid-19?

WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on June 11, 2020 in Geneva. – Martial Trezzini/AP/SIPA

  • Has the World Health Organization indirectly recognized the uselessness of masks against Covid-19?
  • This is what suggests several Facebook posts listing the “potential adverse effects and disadvantages” of masks, taken from a WHO document dated June 2020.
  • But they fail to mention the potential benefits listed in the same document, as well as the most recent WHO advice on wearing the surgical or cloth mask.

Have anti-masks found strong support from the World Health Organization (WHO)? In recent days, several Facebook posts have relayed certain remarks from the international institution to support their questions / criticisms vis-à-vis this anti-Covid 19 health measure adopted in many countries – and which has just become mandatory throughout Paris.

« Here is a document published by the WHO a few months ago on wearing a mask. The undesirable effects and potential drawbacks can be found on page 9: potentially increased risk of self-contamination due to handling a face mask and then touching the eyes with contaminated hands, possible self-contamination if a wet or dirty non-medical mask is not used. ‘is not replaced, thus promoting the proliferation of microorganisms, headache and / or possible breathing difficulties depending on the type of mask used, facial skin lesions ”, we can read in this long list.

One of the Facebook posts on WHO and masks. – screenshot / Facebook

This also mentions a “false sense of security that may lead to less scrupulous respect for preventive measures which have proved their worth such as physical distancing and hand hygiene” or even “wearing a mask that is not well tolerated, in particular by the young child ”. And the post to indicate a link to the WHO website page including these indications.

If these Facebook posts do quote the WHO’s “provisional guidelines”, dated June 5, 2020, concerning its “advice on wearing a mask in the context of [du] Covid-19 ”, they omit on the other hand the“ beneficial effects / potential advantages ”yet listed by the organization in the same document. And they suggest, wrongly, that the WHO is opposed to such a measure, while its position on the subject has evolved since the beginning of June.


“In the general public, wearing a mask by healthy people can have the following advantages in particular: potentially reduced risk of exposure to infected subjects who are still asymptomatic; potentially reduced stigma of people wearing a mask to avoid infecting others (source control) […] ; people feel they are helping to stop the spread of the virus; an opportunity to remind the population of the other measures to be observed (for example, ensure hand hygiene, do not touch their nose or mouth) – the opposite effect is however also possible ”, can we also read in these provisional guidelines.

These recommendations already marked an important evolution in the discourse of the WHO compared to that that she held in April, when it did not yet mention the generalized wearing of the mask.

Two months later, in its guidelines of June 5, it still recommends the use of the “medical mask” (surgical) as a priority for people showing symptoms of Covid-19 and for nursing staff, while ” [conseillant] now to the authorities, to effectively prevent the transmission of Covid-19 in areas of community transmission, to encourage the wearing of masks by the general public in specific situations and places, as part of a global approach to fight against transmission of SARS-CoV-2. “

Also, the “potential drawbacks” listed by the WHO do not mean that the masks would be ineffective. The risk of self-contamination, for example, is well taken into account by the government since it specifies, in its health recommendations, avoid touching it, wear it on the forehead or chin and finally store it in a bag or in a pocket.

These customary details themselves echo WHO’s recommendations for decision-makers, as can be read in the document cited on Facebook: “While wearing a mask is recommended for the general public, political decision-makers should clearly communicate the intended purpose, indicate where, when and how to wear it and the type of mask to be used, explain the results that wearing the mask will or will not achieve and clearly state that wearing the mask fits as part of a series of measures alongside hand hygiene, physical distancing and other measures, all necessary and mutually reinforcing ”.

“Encourage the wearing of non-medical fabric masks by the general public”

At present, the WHO always recommends the wearing of the medical mask “only by the caregivers, the people presenting suggestive symptoms [du] Covid-19, even mild, people who deal with suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19 outside health facilities, people aged 60 or over, people with chronic diseases ”.

And if it indicates that “no scientific data of quality can justify the widespread wearing of the mask everywhere” and that “it is necessary to take into account the potential advantages and disadvantages”, she “advises the public authorities to encourage the wearing of the non-medical fabric mask by the general public ”because this“ could limit the spread of potentially infectious droplets by infected subjects ”.

August 24, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for his part, repeated: “If we all make sure to respect physical distancing, to wash our hands regularly, to wear masks and to keep ourselves informed, we can collectively break the transmission chains. A reminder made a few days after the WHO recommended wearing a mask from the age of 12, under the same conditions as adults.



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