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T-shirts may help stymie bird flu

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Friday, June 16, 2006

It's not fancy, but it'll do.

In the event of a bird flu pandemic -- when medical supplies are expected to be in short supply worldwide -- a mask made out of an ordinary cotton T-shirt could keep the deadly virus out of people's lungs, said a local public health physician and two University of Pittsburgh researchers.

"It's a prototype. We've tested it on three people, but we thought it warrants getting the information out there," said David Hostler, a professor in Pitt's School of Emergency Medicine.

More testing is planned.

World health experts have spent more than three years monitoring a strain of bird flu known as H5N1, which many fear could cause a catastrophic pandemic if it mutates into a form that jumps easily from human to human.

The virus has killed 128 of the 225 people infected since 2003, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Virginia Dato, a public health physician with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, worked for about a year to design the T-shirt mask and enlisted Hostler and Pitt graduate student Michael Hahn to help test it about three months ago, Hostler said.

The mask is made by boiling a cotton T-shirt in water for about 10 minutes then letting it air-dry to sterilize the fabric and shrink it as much as possible. Using a pair of scissors, a ruler and a marker, Dato fashioned an eight-layer air filter that goes over a person's nose and mouth, as well as three sets of ribbons to secure the mask to a person's head.

A diagram is available at

The U.S. Department of Labor recommends an N95 respirator -- that is, a mask that filters at least 95 percent of germ-sized particles -- for anyone working around bird flu. But the masks have to be specially fitted, and won't be accessible to everyone if a pandemic breaks out, according to an article the team published in the most recent issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

"If I did not have an N95, I would be comfortable wearing this," Hostler said.

He added, however, that washing your hands and staying away from infected areas remain the best protection.

"I don't know how someone with asthma will do breathing through eight layers of T-shirt. I don't know how a child will do breathing through all that fabric," Hostler said.

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