Medical staff treating Covid-19 patients say they were infected after using counterfeit N95 masks 

Medical staff in hospitals treating Covid-19 patients say they are being given fake and substandard masks that put them at a higher risk of being infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease. 

The government has supplied doctors and nurses across Myanmar with N95 masks, which are considered among the most effective pieces of protection against the virus. 

But the supplies have been tainted by counterfeits that cost less to produce and, medical staff and officials say, offer less protection than the real thing.

One doctor at the emergency department of a government-run hospital in Yangon said he was infected after wearing a fake mask while treating severely ill Covid-19 patients. 

The fakes appear to have tainted supplies sent directly from the government as well as batches given to hospitals by private donors, he said. 

“Two days before I got infected, I saw patients on ventilators,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know whether my mask was fake or real.” 

But after testing positive he checked his mask and found that the fonts, images and ear straps looked different to those on a genuine 3M branded N95 mask. 

“I realized it was a fake,” he said. 

Kyaw Ko Thet, a doctor who also sells and donates masks, said that the fake masks do not have a layer of polypropylene fabric, making them far less effective than genuine N95 masks that contain the filtering material. 

“Doctors and nurses are being infected one after another because of these fake masks,” he said. “It’s like giving us plastic guns and letting us go off to war.”  

It’s like giving us plastic guns and letting us go off to war.

He said that he found many substandard masks while buying medical supplies to donate to health workers.

A nurse working at the Wai Bar Gyi Infectious Diseases Hospital, which treats Covid-19 patients, told Myanmar Now that the facility has had a problem with fake masks for the past month. “But we have to wear what we have,” they said. 

FDA headquarters ignored warning 

Dr Htet Phyo Aung, an assistant lecturer at the University of Pharmacy in Yangon who campaigns against fake masks, said that in October he examined samples of 3M N95 masks from 10 hospitals and clinics treating Covid-19 patients and found counterfeits. 

He said he decided to check the masks because five of his friends were infected after treating patients with other conditions who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There are those who can distinguish between which mask is real and which mask is fake and those who cannot,” said Dr Htet Phyo Aung.

Substandard masks have also been found at treatment facilities in Ayeyarwady region, said Pyei Phyo, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Pathein township.

“When we examined the masks, the words were different from each other. The numbers were different. The fonts were not the same, the boldness was different in some places, the boxes were different,” he said.

Genuine 3M N95 masks have a sharp, straight blue line running around the inside, whereas the line on fakes is often blurry. Counterfeits may also fit poorly, giving the wearer less protection.

His office reported its findings to FDA headquarters in Naypyidaw in October but never received a reply, he said. 

The blue stripes on the inside of the high-quality N95 mask are bold and neat (Sai Zaw / Myanmar Now)

Dr Than Min Htut, the medical superintendent of Pathein Hospital, said that a real 3M N95 mask costs about 15,000 kyat and supplies are limited.

“If we do not enter the ward because we do not have a real 3M mask, the patient will die. I have to use what I have now,” he said. “But we are careful. We know this is not a real 3M mask and the quality is not good. So I wear two masks on my face.”

Lin Bo Bo, the owner of the May pharmacy in Yangon’s Lanmadaw township, said substandard masks sell for about 3,000 kyat each at the wholesale market where he gets supplies. They look similar to real ones but have a different packaging seal.

“If the real 3M box is opened from above, the seal will break,” he said. “A lot of 3M masks with doubtful packages have been available in the market since the beginning of October,” he said. 

“When we explain there are counterfeits among the items sent by the pharmaceutical company, these masks are taken back after an apology,” he added.   

No import restrictions 

N95 masks are on a list of six medical products that are exempt from import restrictions because they are needed to tackle outbreaks of Covid-19.

Dr Tin Wah Wah Win, director of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics at the FDA, urged consumers to buy from “reputable” pharmaceutical companies.  

“We have no law to control mask quality. We can only act if there is a law,” she said. 

A high-quality N95 mask (middle) and a substandard one (left) (Sai Zaw/Myanmar Now)

Myanmar has recorded over 100,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 2,100 deaths. More than 18,000 patients are still being treated in hospitals.

Around 150 health workers in Rakhine state and more than 500 in Yangon region have been infected while providing treatment to Covid-19 patients, said Dr Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Central Infectious Disease Control Division under the health ministry.

She attributed the problem of fake masks to private donors, and said government-supplied stocks were subject to quality controls. 

“Lately, donors have been buying protective equipment to donate directly to hospitals… these are not subject to the control of the ministry’s Quality Assurance Committee.”  

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