Updated mask to help users breathe easier

SINGAPORE - Filipino assistant nursing officer Sandy Bugawa remembers the discomfort of having to wear the protective N95 face mask at work daily during the Sars outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

The 39-year-old told my paper yesterday that it was suffocating and even choking at times to don the mask for long hours.

But, if another pandemic were to occur here, the experience of wearing the mask could be different.

Ms Bugawa is one of 27 nurses at the All Saints Home in Hougang involved in trials of a prototype mask. The trials will last for three to six months before the product is launched commercially.

The product, called Mask-Aid, was developed over 18 months by four lecturers from Ngee Ann Polytechnic's (NP) School of Engineering to cater to nurses and caregivers like Ms Bugawa.

At a press briefing held at the nursing home yesterday, NP deputy principal Foo See Meng said that the Mask-Aid will be useful for those who have to wear the N95 mask for long periods of time, "sometimes for the full eight- hour shift".

He added: "It can get so uncomfortable that users have to take the masks off every 20 minutes just to breathe in fresh air."

The Mask-Aid, designed to give users a constant supply of fresh air, consists of a typical N95 mask with a nozzle attached to it. On the other end is the source of ventilation for users - a 200g air-filtering unit which is strapped to the user's waist.

When a switch is turned on, filtered air passes through the nozzle into the mask. Users can even adjust the flow of air, based on their comfort levels. Local medical and health-care device manufacturer Inzign has picked up the design. Inzign's managing director, Mr Phua Swee Hoe, said that the air-filtering unit, when fully charged, has a battery life of eight hours. The filter unit is also expected to last 20 years.

But the N95 mask and nozzle will have to be replaced after use for hygiene purposes, he said.

Mr Phua stressed that the product will be kept affordable for everyone. He added that the price will be only "about 10 per cent" more than the typical N95 mask - which retails at about $3.95 each.

Assistant nursing officer Anthony Lee, 56, who has tested the product, summed it up: "It doesn't even feel like I am wearing a mask."


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