ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Hundreds of students on the University of Michigan campus are part of a research study that could change the way the world looks at influenza.
Researchers are trying to determine whether wearing surgical masks and hand sanitizing can prevent the spread of flu or other respiratory illnesses.
There’s only one public place in his residence hall where Ken Miguel doesn’t wear a surgical mask – the cafeteria.
“It’s kind of hard to eat with this thing on,” the University of Michigan freshman said recently from behind the blue mask. “It’s kind of hard to do a lot of things with this on.”
But every day, Miguel, 18, wears the mask while he studies, does laundry and sprints to class. It gets a little uncomfortable, but it’s for a good cause, he says.
Flu hit the university late last month and students in the study have since been divided into three groups: those who only wear masks; those who wear masks and use hand sanitizer; and those who do neither.
They’ll fill out surveys every week, answering questions about their physical health and how often they wear the mask, which is optional outside the residence halls. The students will wear the masks until the flu outbreak has died down, but no longer than six weeks, the researchers said.
Funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the research is the first of its kind, said Dr. Allison Aiello, a Michigan epidemiology professor who designed the study with principal investigator Dr. Arnold Monto.
Scientists say the world is long overdue for a deadly flu epidemic, one that could emerge if the bird flu in Asia mutates to spread easily among people. A pandemic could kill millions of people. Right now there’s not enough research to determine whether wearing masks and washing hands would be effective during such an event, Aiello said.
U.S. health officials have made no recommendation about wearing face masks. The government is stockpiling a vaccine officials hope would be effective against a pandemic flu strain, but there isn’t enough. Cotton masks and hand sanitizer could be a first line of defense.
“We know the clock is ticking, we just don’t know when the alarm will go off,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University. “We already know there’s going to be regular influenza annually, and even that’s enough to grab our attention.”
The results of the Michigan study “will be widely discussed, no matter the outcome,” he said.
Schaffner says the study has important “real life” circumstances at its base. College dormitories, where students eat, sleep and study together, are the perfect breeding ground for airborne illnesses, he said.
In Alice Lloyd Hall, one of the dorms chosen for the study, masked students can be seen behind the front desk, hurrying down hallways and studying. About 1,200 students on campus were signed up as of last Wednesday, and more are recruited every day.
For participating, they can receive $100, an incentive for many college students.
Several students acknowledged they’re only doing it for the money. Miguel said he’ll save the cash for a trip to Peru this summer, while Alicja Sobilo, 18, said she’s going shopping.
Some worry that the students aren’t taking the science seriously.
“The importance of this research isn’t a message that seems to be getting to all of them,” said Allison Sponseller, 22, a resident adviser and study recruiter. “My biggest concern is in a week they will all forget about it and stop wearing the masks.”
But Schaffner says that’s one of the study’s advantages.
“That actually will add to the real life aspect of it,” he said. “Those of us involved in real-life public health know that we can never achieve perfection – it’s what we can do in a semi-controlled environment.”
Aiello said the researchers are also hoping to get information on how students feel about the masks – whether wearing them is “socially acceptable.”
So far, it doesn’t look good for the masks. Students say they’re “goofy-looking,” inconvenient or just plain annoying.
“I wouldn’t wear it outside the hall,” said Jeff Van Laere, 20. “But I feel obligated to wear it in here. We know how important it is when we sign up for it, and we honor that. I’m getting paid for this commitment.”