Poor awareness on guidelines may render locally-made facemasks unsafe

…expert calls for study into sterilisation process, materials

Sikirat Ayinde (not real name), a local fashion designer in Alapere area of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, says she is not aware of the Barrier Masks Guide for makers and users published by the Standards Organisation of Nigerian (SON) on its social media page on Monday.

“No,” she said, feeling jittery, when asked if she knew about the guide, a six-page document available on the Twitter page of the quality watchdog.

Ayinde specialises in all kinds of clothes, but the move by the Lagos State government to implement compulsory use of facemasks in public places in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the state has made her delve into the making of facemasks.

Last week, the governors of the six South-West states of Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Oyo resolved to make wearing of facemasks compulsory for residents of their states.

Also during his nationwide broadcast on Monday, President Muhammadu Buhari said the government “will strictly ensure the mandatory use of facemasks or coverings in public in addition to maintaining physical distancing and personal hygiene”.

“State governments, corporate organisations and philanthropists are encouraged to support the production of cloth masks for citizens,” he said.

Ayinde and other tailors like her have been responding to this call, churning out all types of fashionable facemasks in many parts of the country.

However, like Ayinde, many tailors around the country who are making brisk business sewing reusable facemasks are unaware of the guidelines for production published by SON, and this lack of awareness may render these locally-made masks unsafe for use, experts say.

“These nose masks are becoming fashionable, but to what extent are they sterile? How clean are they? Should the person wash it before use? There are some messages that need to be reinforced around the use of the masks,” said Felix Abrahams Obi, a senior programme officer/health financing engagement officer at Results for Development.

SON’s Barrier Mask Guide has about 10 guidelines for production excluding the synopsis and instruction for use.

“The parts of the barrier mask likely to be in contact with the user shall be free of sharp edges and burrs. It should be colourless (colours that are monogenic),” the document states.

The guide also describes the quality of materials to be used and the packaging, stating that facemasks should be packaged in such a way as to protect them against mechanical damage and contamination before use.

However, given the places where these masks are produced – in densely populated areas where social distancing is hardly observed – much cannot be said about preventing contamination, and from photos emanating from social media, the emphases seem to be more on fashion and less on safety.

Ayinde’s facemasks are produced in a shop built in front of drainage and shared by six workers. Her facemasks cost only N100, and she said since she started production four days ago, she has recorded significant patronage due to the affordability, plus the fact that citizens fear they may be arrested by state officials if they fail to wear facemasks.

But she randomly selects the materials she uses without reference to the guidelines.

“I just buy the clothes and elastic,” she said. “I’m a tailor. I can sew it.”

Asked whether she takes any step to ensure the facemasks are safe for use, she got agitated and refused to comment.

The finished products are displayed for purchase without any form of packaging, BusinessDay observed.
With tailors like Ayinde plunging into making of ‘protective’ facemasks without any knowledge on the specifications and sterilisation process, experts fear that safety is being compromised.

“Well, they are not so effective,” said Judith Jolayemi, a medical doctor at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital.

She, however, said for people moving around freely in places that are not so congested, the masks could be safe.

“But in places or hospitals where COVID-19 patients are being treated, it’s safest to actually use the appropriate nose masks,” said Jolayemi, who is also president of the association of resident doctors.
Call for the study of the sterilisation process, materials used

“Beyond producing the masks, they should also be sterile. What process are they using to disinfect them before use?”Obi of Results for Development asked.

Comparing surgical masks to the locally made cloth masks, Obi said the former was designed to meet some specifications and for them to be used under clinical environment means they are also sterile and by that, free of germs. And if they are not sterile, they are produced under sterile conditions such that when you are using them you are not introducing any infection to your body.

For him, these are dimensions that NCDC and others advocating for locally made masks or scientists can do a quick study on to provide evidence of safety instead of just claiming every mask will prevent droplets.
“They would actually prevent some droplets, but to what extent do they compared to the effectiveness of the regular nose masks?” he asked.

He further asserted that the sterilisation process in the production of these masks is one area scientists, especially those into infection, prevention and control, need to do some study.

According to him, there should be some standardisation of the clothes used. It may be important to do a check on it, too.

“There should be evidence that if you use this set of masks, the ones of this size, when you cough some percentage of the droplets might leave and to what extent do they go or not? Or if they are completely shut out,” he said.

Obi called on Nigerian scientists to check what materials are capable of effectively preventing the spread as some materials could have pores in their designs. He said apart from having the masks, the other important thing is safe hygiene practices.

He said people should not see masks as the silver bullet that would send the virus away, adding that there are a lot of additional hygiene practices that people need to imbibe.