An Instagram post by Instablog9ja claims a man was suffocated to death in Ogun state by a face mask.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the use of a face mask was recommended as part of measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Following this, there has been misinformation around the use of face masks leading to questions, such as are face masks protective or more harmful? Has a fine been placed on not wearing a face mask in Nigeria? Did the World Health Organisation, exempt kids, from wearing face masks? etc.
On September 6, 2020, Instablog9ja shared a post with information that face masks suffocated a 50-year man to death in Ogun state.
“A 50-year old man Solomon Ede AKA Baba Rita, is dead after his lifeless body was found face down with his face mask in Alako, Abeokuta, Ogun State.”
Excerpt from Instablog Instagram post.
A keyword search showed reports by instablog9ja and other news sites/blogs on the death of the 50-year old.
A news site AB-TC reported that an Abeokuta security guard was suffocated to death by a face mask.
A news blog, Know Afrika, also reported that face a mask suffocated a man to death in Ogun state.
Another news site, The Herald, published a similar report saying the man died after suffocating.
Can face masks suffocate to death?
Although face masks have been recommended, wearing them is not as comfortable as they look. Is this known discomfort so bad that it can make one feel dizzy or lead to suffocation?
A study on the effects of wearing a mask concluded that in general, increased physical activity leads to more oxygen demand at our tissue level; hence, there could be a less efficient exchange of airflow. However, the severity of this differs from the wearing of face masks.
Another study among surgeons who routinely wear surgical masks show there was an increase in heart rates and a decrease in oxygen saturation of their blood, after an hour of putting on a surgical mask. The findings were, however, reported as inconclusive, as they did not account for factors like physical exertion and environmental conditions.
What are experts saying?
Doctor U. Jerry Agim, a registrar at the National Hospital Abuja, speaking with Dubawa in a phone interview said a face mask cannot suffocate an individual to death. He noted that as a health worker, he wears a face mask at least 9hours daily and sometimes he falls asleep with it during his call duty.
He explained there are several factors that could have led to the man’s death. Factors like intoxication from the alcohol the victim took, inability to remove face mask when feeling discomfort, underlying health issues like Asthma, COPD, cancer, pleural effusion, pulmonary oedema, Covid-19 etc.
Mr Agim said alcohol on its own depresses the respiratory centres and other body reflexes and can also induce hypoglycemia i.e to reduce blood sugar which can also kill an individual. He added that alcohol does not only depress the respiratory centres, it depresses the whole of the central nervous system which can result in coma.
He noted that if a person has any of the above-mentioned health issues, wearing a face mask will cause discomfort and make it more difficult to breathe so the ideal response is to remove the mask.
He further explained that wearing a mask in an environment with poor ventilation can reduce the person’s oxygen supply and even course dizziness or fainting spell.
“I can say categorically, the face mask did not suffocate him. The alcohol intoxication killed him from either one of the two mechanisms or both explained above.”
Excerpt from Interview.
Another medical personnel, Doctor Okpanachi Achile, who is a house officer at the Federal Medical Centre in Kogi State, told Dubawa that it is possible but the face mask is not the main cause.
He said alcohol intake especially drunkenness can lead to aspiration- foreign bodies including stomach contents entering the airway. Aspiration he explained occurs when foreign material is inhaled into the airway.
He added that as drinking increases, people become sleepy or fall into a stupor and after a very high level of alcohol consumption, the respiratory system becomes depressed and the person will stop breathing.
According to him, Comatose patients may aspirate their vomit resulting in vomitus in the lungs, which may cause “drowning” and later pneumonia if survived.
He said the causes of death include asphyxiation due to a blocked airway and irritation or infection of the respiratory tract due to inhaled material, or aspiration pneumonia.
Speaking on the face mask, he said the face mask could have increased the risk of aspiration by obstructing the outflow of the vomitus. A soaked face mask he said is a very poor medium for gaseous exchange. “In a man with the already compromised respiratory system, it’s like adding insult to injury,” he said.
“Not anybody that sleeps with a face mask will just die. There are other factors, which is the major cause. Depending on the circumstance, it is not just a clear cut that it is because he wore a face mask but the face mask worsened whatever happened to him.”
Excerpt from interview
Although the use of a face mask can cause discomfort, it is not proven that it can suffocate an individual. So there is a need to continue to wear them as outlined by the guidelines of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as long as health authorities see them as necessary in a pandemic.