9 Feb 2018

Face masks for fighting flu under review at Waikato DHB

7:13 pm on 9 February 2018

Waikato District Health Board (DHB) could drop a contentious policy requiring un-immunised staff to wear a mask when treating patients.

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Photo: mihalec/123RF

The policy was brought in three years ago by the former DHB chief executive Nigel Murray, who resigned in October amid a furore over his spending in the role.

It requires healthcare workers who can't show that they had the flu jab to wear personal protective equipment, such as a face mask when involved in clinical duties or in a clinical area.

Dr Murray told staff they had an obligation to patients to keep them safe, and the policy was later extended to cover visitors to Waikato hospitals who were unvaccinated.

But it proved contentious, with several nurses suspended briefly in 2015 after refusing to wear masks.

Acting DHB chief Derek Wright said he had asked an infection control committee to review the policy.

"I want to just look at what the research is. We've had a fairly good rate in terms of the number of staff who have got immunised, so I just want us to have another look and see basically what's the research around this policy and does it actually make a difference."

He said he hadn't made a decision to do away with the measure, which RNZ understands only Waikato has adopted.

The DHB might amend the policy as a result of the advice he received, Mr Wright said.

"If I got advice that says that there's no clinical research that actually shows that face masks actually make a significant difference then obviously we would reconsider it...

"I'll be looking for advice from my infection control committee which is made up of specialist infection control doctors and others."

The immunisation rate among staff had climbed from 53 percent to around 70 percent under the policy.

Mr Wright conceded it was still unpopular, however.

"I want to have a relationship with staff which is much more of a working together, a bit of transparency, and it's about saying this is the research behind it."

He expected to receive the experts' advice within the month, in time to make a decision about both the staff and visitor policies, before the new flu season began.

Raina MacIntyre.

Raina MacIntyre Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, an Australian infectious diseases expert, Raina MacIntyre, told a flu symposium in Wellington yesterday that protective equipment including masks were important but must be good quality and worn correctly.

"Normal surgical masks, there's very little evidence that they protect. They might protect a little bit but for a health worker who's at high risk [of infection], a respirator generally provides better protection against respiratory pathogens."

And a GP from Geraldine, Diana Scott, told those at the symposium she just wished those with flu or bad colds would understand the need to stay home.

"You might have a year where you've got a particularly nasty flu going round and you've just diagnosed somebody with it and the next thing you see them in the supermarket shopping, when you're on your way home. They're just spreading it."

Diana Scott, Geraldine GP.

Diana Scott urges patients to stay home if they have the flu. Photo: Supplied

This year's new flu vaccine will cover four main strains of the flu, rather than the usual three. It's expected to be in GP surgeries mid next month.