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Masked truth

The mask was all the rage during last year’s bird flu season. Did it work? Reshma Patil probes.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2007 02:37 IST

It is now a year since a dusty little poultry outpost surprised its residents by springing on the world map — India’s first bird flu hotspot Navapur swarmed with doctors, vets and media, all wearing surgical masks.

As bird flu reaches next door Pakistan, researchers at the University of Michigan in the United States are experimenting on hundreds of students living in dormitories to check whether wearing facemasks and using hand sanitisers stops the spread of the flu virus from a sneeze. They should have visited Navapur on Gujarat’s border this time last year to watch a veritable ‘maskerade’ in times of flu.

On ground zero, I had started my own diffident collection of free surgical masks as I reported the bird flu — foolishly like the rest of the media — by gatecrashing stinking disinfectant-strewn poultry farms, next to vets in protective gear culling birds by the thousands per day. Ignoring every basic caution required in reporting epidemics while unvaccinated, we credulously trusted the masks.

The first mask a concerned vet had thrust into my hand — half a day after I had wandered unprotected in the quarantined zone — was a flimsy cotton piece that left air pockets on the side so the smell of birds dying, buried or buried alive, mixed with droplets of bird feed and bird poo wafted down our throats.

Photographers and TV reporters, carried away by the telegenic world story breaking before them, wore masks but forgot the precaution of closed shoes while storming quarantined poultry farms, beside mass graves where potential tandoori chicken would die a premature death. Those who forgot to pack hand sanitisers trusted a dry cake of soap at Navapur’s wedding hall-cum-lodge (Rs 300 a night!) where meals were served on rickety outdoor tables, riskily splattered with bird poo.

In the hospital, where suspects were quarantined, we looked for the human interest story in a bird disease. “Your mask is useless, wear this,” said a doctor, giving me an improved version with a nozzle, too late, after I had inhaled contaminated air.

But after weary days making several masked fashion statements, we got bored worrying that the birds would get even and give us the virus. Tired of mumbling for quotable quotes behind masks, we finally abandoned protection as we wandered around villages where chickens were dying mysteriously in every home.

Then rumour spread that a quarantined patient had tested positive for bird flu. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the wedding hall from where we filed exotica from Navapur was fast evacuated amid nervous chatter about medical check-ups. Long faces worried they had shed their masks too soon.

As I read that the death toll in Indonesia and Egypt is rising, Michigan, I vote for the mask.