Rationale: Drug-resistant tuberculosis transmission in hospitals threatens staff and patient health. Surgical face masks used by patients with tuberculosis (TB) are believed to reduce transmission but have not been rigorously tested.
Objectives: We sought to quantify the efficacy of surgical face masks when worn by patients with multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB).
Methods: Over 3 months, 17 patients with pulmonary MDR-TB occupied an MDR-TB ward in South Africa and wore face masks on alternate days. Ward air was exhausted to two identical chambers, each housing 90 pathogen-free guinea pigs that breathed ward air either when patients wore surgical face masks (intervention group) or when patients did not wear masks (control group). Efficacy was based on differences in guinea pig infections in each chamber.
Measurements and main results: Sixty-nine of 90 control guinea pigs (76.6%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 68-85%) became infected, compared with 36 of 90 intervention guinea pigs (40%; 95% CI, 31-51%), representing a 56% (95% CI, 33-70.5%) decreased risk of TB transmission when patients used masks.
Conclusions: Surgical face masks on patients with MDR-TB significantly reduced transmission and offer an adjunct measure for reducing TB transmission from infectious patients.