TORONTO - Makers and vendors of surgical masks and other products designed to curb the spread of disease are struggling to keep up with "significant" demand as flu fears persist in Canada and around the world.
This comes despite the fact that health officials are warning the general public to stay away from the use of masks as a preventative measure, noting that in some cases they can even increase risk of infection.
The company 3M, which makes several kinds of surgical masks and N95 respirators, has seen "substantially stronger demand" for such products worldwide, including in Canada, since the onset of the swine flu outbreak, a spokeswoman said Monday.
"(It is) significantly higher than what we'd see at this time of year and significantly higher than during a regular flu season," said Sarah Tattersall.
Surgical masks are generally used in health-care settings to protect against respiratory viruses, which are transmitted by droplets - through sneezes or coughs, for example, said Dr. Mary Vearncombe with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
The N95 respirators fit tighter to the face and are designed to protect against airborne infections such as tuberculosis, said Vearncombe, Sunnybrook's medical director of infection prevention and control.
Tattersall said 3M has ramped up production, adding shifts on manufacturing lines around the world, but still is struggling to meet the massive demand.
"We continue to expect that the demand for Avagard - our hand sanitizers - and the N95 respirators, will see an outpace in supply for the foreseeable future," she said.
Tattersall said 3M has seen a surge in requests from health-care organizations, government agencies and businesses.
The largest increase in demand has been for the N95 masks, but demand has also increased for surgical masks, hand sanitizers and disposable thermometers, Tattersall said.
The supply of respirators and other key products is being prioritized to ensure that the needs of front-line health-care workers and essential services are met, she said.
3M is following the guidance of world and Canadian health officials, who do not recommend the general public wear masks, Tattersall said. She also stressed that while anyone can buy an N95 mask it needs to be fitted to work properly.
Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief medical officer of health, has said research shows wearing masks does very little to reduce the spread of infection in the general population.
But that hasn't stopped customers from flocking to pharmacies and retail stores to stock up on the items.
At Starkman Health Care Depot in Toronto their supply of 586 boxes of N95s - each containing 20 masks - was sold out by Thursday. They received another shipment on Friday, but their supplier has told them their stock of 100 boxes of 35 masks will have to last them until the first week of June.
"It's very unusual," said Jim Garde, general manager at Starkman. "(But) it's nothing like it was with SARS. Not even close."
In 2003, when Toronto was faced with an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, Garde said 10,000 masks were sold in one morning to members of the public, who at times stood 12 deep at the counter.
Shoppers Drug Mart has seen a rise in sales of masks and several stores have sold out, a spokeswoman said.
For most people, stockpiling surgical or N95 masks is unnecessary, Vearncombe said.
"They're wasting their money," she said, especially if people are uneducated about their use.
Butler-Jones said not only do the masks do little to curb the spread of infection, but they can actually increase a user's risk of getting sick.
If the N95 respirators are not fitted properly they may give people a false sense of security, Vearncombe said. Wearing a mask more than once and improperly disposing of it can also increase the chance of infection.
"If you don't take it off properly and discard of it properly you could actually contaminate yourself with any viral droplets that landed on the outside of the mask," Vearncombe said.
It is recommended that users use the mask once, put it directly in the garbage, then immediately wash or sanitize their hands, she said.