Industry and business

The history of using face masks to prevent epidemics

The history of using face masks to prevent epidemics

Some people believe that face masks (masks) have only been used in modern times, and this common belief is mentioned in some scientific journals. However, the truth referred to by the history of medicine is that human safety has always been threatened by infectious diseases. Humans have been continuously combating and researching the causes, transmission methods, prevention, and treatment of these diseases, along with other aspects related to them. Thus, a rich experience has accumulated, passed down through ages and generations, and evolved in its forms and effectiveness until it reached the stage and form we see today.

Face masks in ancient times

Anthropologists have studied human history and have not yet discovered exactly how people practiced medicine in prehistoric times. However, the undisputed fact is that the Egyptian civilization, which lasted from 3300 to 525 BCE, was the place where the concept of health began and where doctors distinguished themselves. Since ancient times, humans have started preventing and combating pandemics and infectious diseases using various methods, from superstitious practices such as magic (where ancient Egyptians believed that gods, demons, and spirits played a major role in causing diseases) to scientific methods. They also established a biosafety system aimed at effectively responding to the spread of infectious diseases, including the use of disinfectants, social distancing, and face masks as protection against epidemics and the odors that were prevalent due to these epidemics.

China gained rich experience in both preventing and treating infectious diseases. The earliest recorded mask-like objects in history date back to the 6th century BCE, where images were found of people wearing cloth coverings over their mouths at the entrances of Persian tombs in China. Additionally, during the Roman Empire, over 2,000 years ago, a protective face mask similar to today’s medical masks was introduced. It was made from animal bladders and used in mines to protect workers from toxic fumes. Some followers of Jainism, which originated in India around 500 BCE, wore cloth masks to avoid accidentally inhaling insects as part of their practice of ahimsa, which prohibits harming any living being, no matter how small.

Masks in the Islamic era

الكمامات في العصر الإسلامي

During the Islamic era, various pandemics and infectious diseases, transmitted through the air and contact, emerged. Medical scholars in Islamic eras dealt with these diseases wisely and with care. In the 14th century, the religious scholar and physician Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya warned against leprosy, saying, “Flee from leprosy as you flee from a lion.” Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also said, “There is no contagion, no bird omens, no hama, and no evil omen. Flee from the leper as you would from a lion,” as narrated by Al-Bukhari. Physicians understood that infections were transmitted through contact with sick individuals or their breath, and the only way to avoid transmission was to distance oneself from such a person.

People would cover their faces with something resembling a medical mask when they wanted to leave their homes to get their necessities. Whether they made these masks specifically for those pandemics from gauze and cloth or wrapped their faces with the veils they wore, it reduced the chances of contracting diseases. The Islamic dress for women also played a significant role in disease prevention, such as the niqab or headscarf, which served as a substitute for a medical mask. They also introduced many means of disease prevention and epidemics control.

Face masks in modern times

Nose and mouth coverings were part of traditional health practices against infectious diseases in early modern Europe. In the 14th century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) spread in Europe, causing the death of at least one-third of the continent’s population. This greatly contributed to the emergence of functional objects resembling face masks. In the 16th century, French physician Charles de Lorme invented the beak mask. It was a mask made of boiled leather with a beak-like structure, featuring two holes for breathing and glass in the eye cavity for vision. To enhance its effectiveness, it could contain a variety of products with disinfectant properties in the beak section to filter the disease and isolate the foul odors that were disastrous at that time. These products included dried flowers, aromatic herbs, spices, or camphor and mint leaves. In addition to the mask, the complete “beak costume” consisted of a top hat, shawl, cloak, trousers, gloves, shoes, and a walking stick. It eventually evolved into a macabre symbol of death due to the widespread occurrence of the plague, and this attire is preserved in the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

قناع الوجه المنقار في العصور الحديثة

In the same century, the renowned painter Leonardo da Vinci suggested soaking a piece of cloth in water and placing it on the face to filter out toxic chemicals coming from people’s respiratory devices. This effective method is still widely used in fire safety guides today.

In the 18th century, many factories and companies were established, focusing on producing protective measures against occupational hazards in all professions exposed to hazardous materials such as arsenic, gypsum, lime, tobacco, and silica. Thanks to the Italian Bernardino Ramazzini, a pioneer of occupational medicine and the true founder of occupational hygiene, he recommended that workers in unhealthy swamps cover their faces with cloth or gauze similar to a face mask.

Overall, the use of face masks as a protective measure against infectious diseases has a long history dating back to ancient times. It has evolved and been refined throughout the ages, influenced by different cultures, and has become an essential tool in modern times, especially during pandemics.

Surgical Masks

قناع الجراحة

In 1905, Dr. Alice Hamilton published a study on the amount of streptococcal bacteria expelled when patients with scarlet fever coughed or sneezed. This led her to recommend the use of masks during surgery, which subsequently led to the widespread use of protective masks by surgeons and nurses. These masks were described as a piece of gauze tied with two strings on the headgear, covering the nose, mouth, and beard.

The face mask served as a strategy to control infection, focusing on keeping all germs away. As infectious diseases such as the global influenza pandemic of 1918 emerged in the 19th century, face masks became increasingly common. This turned face masks into a means of protecting healthcare workers and patients from infection. Wearing face masks also became mandatory for police forces during such pandemics.

The evolution of medical face masks

تطورات قناع الوجه الطبي

Medical researchers conducted studies and experiments on medical masks, finding that masks varied greatly in their ability to filter bacteria. However, when used correctly, some masks were considered to provide protection against infection. The medical masks began to be replaced with disposable paper masks in the 1930s and increasingly made from synthetic materials for individual use in the 1960s, which stood out for their performance, comfort, and sterilization. By the early 1960s, there were advertisements for new types of filtering masks made from non-woven synthetic fibers in nursing and surgical journals. These respiratory masks were comfortably cup-shaped on the face, designed to filter the incoming air, not just the outgoing air, and prevent the spread of droplets like traditional masks. These masks were disposable as their synthetic fabric would be damaged during sterilization.

The 21st-century Coronavirus Pandemic

جائحة كورونا

As the 21st century began, the general population became aware of the importance of wearing medical masks as a preventive measure against even simple diseases. The use of masks spread worldwide, and many occupations and procedures required the use of medical face masks for protection, including nursing, surgery, mining, scientific experiments, and various other fields. With advancements in medicine, technology, and industry, numerous factories were established in many countries to produce high-quality and sterilized medical masks according to well-studied standards.

The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) emerged in early 2019, causing a global scare due to its high transmission rate. It has infected over 131 million people in more than 188 countries and territories as of April 5, 2021. Authorities enforced prevention measures, including stay-at-home orders, curfews, and mandatory mask-wearing, with significant fines and imprisonment for those who violated the regulations or neglected to use preventive methods.

Doctors advised people to discard masks immediately after use and not to reuse them. This led to an increased demand for medical face masks, causing shortages and price hikes. Cloth medical masks, which could be reused, emerged as an alternative. Although less effective than medical masks, they gained tremendous success, especially in developing countries. As the mask became an everyday companion for individuals, creative designs emerged in cloth masks to match fashion trends, making individuals feel less obligated and incorporating them as complementary accessories to some outfits during this global crisis.

الكمامة والأزياء

Despite the scientific, industrial, and technological advancements of the time, an effective drug or treatment for the disease could not be manufactured. National governments worldwide declared states of emergency, leading to the closure of many educational, religious, tourist, political, and economic activities. This caused economic and financial crises and damages in many countries globally.

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