The World Health Agency (WHO) on Friday shifted its stance on face masks and caught up with the global trend when it recommended their use for crowded public settings to stem coronavirus infections.
However, the Geneva-based UN health agency stressed that masks can increase health risks if people contaminate them by touching them with dirty hands.
“Masks can also create a false sense of security,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an online press briefing.
He warned that they cannot replace hand hygiene, physical distancing nor tracking down patients and their social contacts.
“I cannot say this clearly enough: Masks alone will not protect you from Covid-19,” said Tedros.
The WHO did not advocate mass use of masks in its previous guidance on this topic in early April.
On Friday, Tedros said governments should encourage their use where there is widespread virus transmission and where it is difficult to keep a safe distance from others, “such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.”
While there is still little solid scientific data on masks, the WHO changed its stance based on evidence about virus transmission by infected people who have not yet developed Covid-19 symptoms, and by infected people who never develop clear symptoms.
The WHO also noted that sewing masks empowers people to do something about the virus while providing a possible source of income.