How effective are different types of masks?

A farm in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A farm in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“Face masks work best to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when everyone wears one. But experts say it is still worth wearing a mask to protect yourself, even if no one else does,” says an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ March 16, 2022) written by Lauren Vogel, news editor with CMAJ.

Our government has given in to public demand for freedom from wearing a mask to protect oneself and protect others. If you go to a party or shopping mall then almost nobody is wearing a mask. You go to a popular busy restaurant which is packed with people and nobody is wearing a mask.

There is a price to pay for this kind of freedom – more people are starting to get sick. People who are fully vaccinated with third and fourth booster shots are getting sick.

A friend of mine, who had his fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot three months ago recently came down with all the classic symptoms of COVID-19 infection. After two weeks of isolation, he is still recovering. What people forget is that vaccines do not provide 100 percent protection.

Third dose of vaccine is 95 percent effective against hospitalization and death. It also brings vaccine efficacy to 97 percent for Delta and 61 percent for Omicron. What about Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants? Do the current vaccines protect us from these variants?

The other thing people forget is the protection you get from COVID-19 vaccines can wane over time (4-6 months); so, booster doses are necessary. Boosters can help improve protection against severe outcomes by up to 90 percent. They may also reduce the risk of post COVID-19 condition.

What kind of mask is worth using to protect yourself and others?

Wearing a mask is very important especially if you are indoor in a crowded place with poor ventilation.

I will take the liberty of going back to Lauren Vogel’s article titled, “Is one-way masking enough?” She makes the following points:

  1. Quality of mask: Better quality masks offered greater protection. Wearing an N95 or KN95 respirator lowered the odds of infection by 83 percent, whereas wearing a surgical mask or cloth mask lowered the odds by 66 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
  2. Indoor public settings: Recent data from the United States shows that people who always wore a face mask in indoor public settings were less likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 than those who never wore a mask. Crowded indoor environments with poor ventilation is very risky.
  3. Mask fitting: Properly fitted N95 respirators should filter at least 95 percent of virus particles. That’s notably better than the protection offered by universal masking with cloth and surgical masks, which would have fallen on the lower end of 75 – 91 percent.
  4. Other types of masks: Surgical masks filtered 47 – 50 percent of particles, while a simple cotton mask filtered 17 – 20 percent. Cloth or surgical masks are very poor in protecting the wearer or other people.

We need to find more effective masks which are affordable and available to all levels of population. Our fight for survival is not over yet. Governments could also offer clearer guidance on separating good quality masks from the sea of unregulated and sometimes counterfeit options. Some European countries are making it mandatory for people to use high-quality masks and respirators that block 90 – 95 percent of particles.

Wearing a mask is like wearing a seat belt in a vehicle. It saves lives.

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Can we prevent heart disease and cancer by taking vitamins and minerals?

Cypress Hills, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Cypress Hills, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

On June 21 2022, US Preventive Services Task Force released updated evidence report and systemic review of vitamin and mineral supplements use for the primary prevention of heart disease and cancer.

Cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death and combined account for approximately half of all deaths in Canada and US annually.

Canadians spend more than $1.4 billion a year on vitamins and supplements. People in the U.S. spent nearly $50 billion on dietary supplements in 2021. Can this money be put to better use? Today, we will review what the Task Force said.

The Task Force reviewed 84 studies and found vitamins and supplements offer little to no benefit in preventing cancer or heart disease. For healthy individuals there is no need to spend precious dollars on consuming vitamins and minerals supplements.

Recommendations for healthy individuals is that instead of taking vitamins or supplements, eating a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly are the best ways to lower one’s risk of cancer or heart disease. A healthy diet is still the first line of defense against chronic disease.

In the past it has been common for health care professionals to recommend vitamin and mineral supplements to their patients for a variety of reasons such as overall health, bone health, musculoskeletal pain, viral infections and immune health.

Independent panel of experts at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force have concluded that it had insufficient evidence to either recommend or discourage the use of multivitamins or supplements to prevent health outcomes.

The American Heart Association recommends that healthy persons receive adequate nutrients by eating a variety of foods in moderation, rather than by taking supplements.  The US Department of Health and Human Services 2020-2025 dietary guidelines suggest that nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods and beverages.

Task Force says unnecessary use of vitamins and minerals can cause harm. For example – lung cancer incidence was reported with the use of beta carotene by persons who smoke tobacco or have occupational exposure to asbestos.

The review examined the impacts of popular supplements like beta carotene, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, selenium and zinc, as well as multivitamins and vitamins A, B, C, D and E. More large-scale studies have come out since 2014, and there is no convincing proof that vitamins and supplements in general are helping with prevention of heart disease and cancer.

There are exceptions to this advice. In the right circumstances, supplements have health benefits. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies cause myriad illnesses. For individuals who are or may soon become pregnant, folic acid is recommended to prevent neural tube defects and iron is recommended to prevent preterm birth and low birth weight, as well as improve fetal brain development, says the Task Force. Supplements should be used for older adults who struggle to absorb nutrients through food.

The new review found strong evidence that vitamin E in particular did not prevent cancer or heart disease, while beta carotene was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and death from heart disease. Consequently, the Task Force advised against taking either supplement to prevent heart disease or cancer, the same recommendation it gave in 2014.

Conclusions

  1. The current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of the use of vitamins for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer.
  2. The Task Force specifically recommends against the use of beta carotene supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer because of a possible increased risk of mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and lung cancer.
  3. The Task Force also specifically recommends against the use of vitamin E supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer because it probably has no net benefit in reducing mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.

Remember, healthy diet is still the first line of defense against bad health.

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Anger, loneliness and traumatic events can lead to broken heart syndrome.

When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind. (African Proverb)
When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind. (African Proverb)

A recent newspaper report said, “Two days after fourth-grade teacher Irma Garcia was killed in the Uvalde, Texas school shooting, her husband, Joe Garcia, suddenly died as well. Family members attributed his death to a broken heart.”

Broken heart syndrome mimics a heart attack. The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unclear. It’s thought that a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, might temporarily damage the hearts of some people. This happens after an extreme stressful event.

A person has no previous history of heart problems or coronary artery disease. That is coronaries are not plugged with atherosclerosis.

Broken heart syndrome may also be called: stress cardiomyopathy, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or apical ballooning syndrome.

Incidence of heart attacks caused by broken heart syndrome is around two per cent. Around one percent of people with broken heart syndrome ultimately die of it.

What are the risk factors for broken heart syndrome?

People who have anxiety or depression may have a higher risk of broken heart syndrome. Intense physical or emotional event is usually a precipitating factor. Anything that causes a strong emotional response, such as a death or other loss, or a strong argument may trigger this condition.

Chronic stress is another risk factor. Taking steps to manage emotional stress can improve heart health and may help prevent broken heart syndrome.

The condition is most common among women ages 50 and up. Women represented around 88 per cent of cases of broken heart syndrome (Journal of the American Heart Association Oct 13, 2021). An article in Cureus. (2020 Sep) also found that anxiety disorders were more prevalent in patients with broken heart syndrome than among healthy people.

How do you know you have broken heart syndrome?

Individuals with broken heart syndrome have signs and symptoms that mimic a heart attack and may include chest pain, shortness of breath and/or irregular pulse rate should seek immediate help and call 911. Take these symptoms seriously. Especially, if something like this happens after a stressful event like death in the family or a heated argument.

Anger, loneliness and depression

There is no doubt your emotions have significant effect on your heart. Managing your emotions will save your life.

Cardiac psychology is receiving attention from experts as a new emotion-based approach to heart health. It is important to treat the mind to improve the heart with a particular emphasis on achieving optimal quality of life outcomes.

There are many things you can do at home to take care of your heart and mind. When you feel angry, shut your eyes and meditate for a few minutes or go for a walk. Follow these five principals:

  1. Avoid loneliness.
  2. Enjoy life and find humour around you.
  3. Follow Mediterranean diet. Generally considered to be world’s healthiest diet.
  4. Keep moving – motion is lotion. Exercise regularly.
  5. Have a positive outlook. Positive outlook equals longer healthy life.

Finally, I will quote what Dr. Ankul Kalra, MD said, “Self-care is extremely important when times are stressful.”

Managing your emotions will save your life.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!

What do we know about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots?

A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A mosque in Cairo, Egypt. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Like many of you, I am curious to know what kind of protection am I getting after third and fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Is it necessary to have third and fourth dose?

What is meant by “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19?

How many vaccine doses do we need to remain protected against COVID-19?

As you may know, some medical conditions, such as measles or polio, completing the primary vaccination series usually provides lifelong protection against disease. For others, such as tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, periodic booster doses of vaccine are required.

With COVID-19 we have learnt levels of protection begin to wane over time, resulting in breakthrough infections. Breakthrough infection is usually not serious.

Many experts believe people are “fully vaccinated” either two weeks after they receive their second dose in a two-dose series, or two weeks after their first dose for single-dose vaccines.

However, “fully vaccinated” is not the same as “optimally protected”, says CDC (US Center for Disease Control and Prevention). “To be optimally protected, a person needs to get a booster shot when and if eligible.”

We know one- or two-dose series remains extremely effective at preventing severe infection and death. How can we maintain this level of protection?

On 30 March, 2022 the CDC recommended a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine for everyone over 50 years of age.

No vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Breakthrough infections can happen with every vaccine, and do not mean that the vaccine does not work.

According to data from the US CDC, unvaccinated people are at 11 times the risk of death from COVID-19 than vaccinated people.

WHO (World Health Organisation) says, “Even once you are fully vaccinated, continue to practice the same prevention measures to protect yourself. Stay at least one metre away from other people, wear a well fitted mask over your nose and mouth when you can’t keep this distance, avoid poorly ventilated places and settings, clean your hands frequently, stay home if unwell and get tested.”

Why do we need booster dose?

The protection you get from COVID-19 vaccines can wane over time (4-6 months); so, booster doses are necessary. Boosters can help improve protection against severe outcomes by up to 90 per cent. They may also reduce the risk of post COVID-19 condition.

Many Canadians are reluctant to go for booster shots (third and fourth shot). According to an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ April 11, 2022) only 56 per cent of adults, and far fewer children, have received three doses of a SARS-COV-2 vaccine. Meanwhile, vaccine manufacturers are warning that fourth doses may be necessary to maintain immunity.

Third dose is 95 per cent effective against hospitalization and death. It also brings vaccine efficacy to 97 per cent for Delta and 61 per cent for Omicron. However, it’s unclear how long good protection from a third shot will last.

Is fourth vaccine dose necessary?

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization currently recommends four doses for people who are immunocompromised, but most provinces are also offering fourth shots to seniors. Both groups may face increased risks of severe illness and greater declines in vaccine efficacy than the general population. Otherwise, experts remain divided on the value of repeat boosters.

Some argue the goal of vaccination should be to prevent severe disease and deaths, not infections, so three shots may be sufficient for most people so long as efficacy against hospitalizations holds, says CMAJ article.

Others argue it makes more sense to focus on distributing vaccines globally and developing new variant-specific vaccines rather than repeatedly using the same shots in a few wealthy countries, with diminishing returns. The evidence to support four doses is limited.

So, what do you think? Is fourth dose necessary?

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