For six straight weeks last fall, LSA sophomore Rachel Lebovic wore a face mask for six hours each day. She wasn’t trying to start a new fashion trend — Lebovic was one of more than 1,000 students participating in the University’s M-FLU study.

M-FLU, a two-year study that began in January 2006 and ended in April 2008, analyzed whether certain flu-prevention techniques like the use of hand sanitizer or face masks would decrease influenza breakouts in University residence halls.

With the peak of flu season approaching in late November, students might be encouraged to know that those techniques appeared effective, according to Allison Aiello, assistant professor of Epidemiology and an M-FLU principal investigator.

“The first-year results indicate that mask use and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer help reduce influenza-like illness rates, ranging from 10 to 50 percent over the study,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The initial results are encouraging since masks and hand hygiene may be effective for preventing a range of respiratory illnesses.”

Results from the second year are still being analyzed.

Aiello said the study was designed in part to evaluate what effect non-medical prevention could have in the case of a flu epidemic.

“Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize that a pandemic of influenza is likely to occur in the future,” Aiello wrote. “Moreover, they recognize that vaccines and antiviral medications may be ineffective and inadequately stockpiled.”

Robert Winfield, director of the University Health Service, said having masks available for University students and employees during pandemics would be helpful. He said UHS has 50,000 face masks stored.

“We will have to look at the study results and think whether or not that’s an adequate supply,” Winfield said. “The research information hasn’t led us to change anything yet, but if we think the research is accurate, then we will want to think more in-depth as to how many masks we should have.”

Researchers studied about 1,400 students in seven residence halls during the first year and 1,200 students from five residence halls during the second year.

Aiello said participants were randomly assigned to one of three study groups: the first required that students wear a face mask, the second required that students wear a face mask and maintain good hand hygiene, and the third was a control group that didn’t require a mask or good hygiene.

She said the two experimental groups were provided with face masks to wear in their dorms for a minimum of six hours per day. Those in the second group were also given an eight-week supply of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Students in the control group were paid $40 and those in the experimental groups received $100.

The Centers for Disease Control, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency, funded the M-FLU study, one of eight projects that are part of the CDC’s $5.2 million cooperative award for research of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The School of Public Health, University Housing and University Health Services were involved in conducting the study.

Lebovic said wearing the face mask was the most difficult part of the study. She said she was often reluctant to wear the mask because it made it hard to breathe and often fogged her glasses.

Lebovic said using the hand sanitizer was easy, and she thinks it wouldn’t be hard for the University to place it in accessible locations.

“But I think the face mask would be too extreme of a measure for just normal people getting the flu who want to protect themselves,” she said.

If participants experienced flu-like symptoms during the study — defined as a cough plus a fever, chills or body aches — they were sent to UHS.

LSA sophomore Zoya Gavrilman participated in the group that wore face masks and used hand sanitizer during the second year of the study. When she started feeling sick and went to UHS, doctors tested her for influenza by conducting a throat swab and two nose swabs. Gavrilman ended up not having the flu, but was given $25 extra for being tested.

LSA sophomore Trevor Maat didn’t partake in the study, but said many of his friends in Alice Lloyd did but didn’t fully comply.

“Last year I noticed a lot of people that participated in it were doing it just to get paid, and they would not wear the masks around the dorm,” Maat said. “Parts of the results may be correct, but considering the masks were a basis for the experiment, I don’t think they’re accurate.”

Winfield said he was confident the measures tested would be beneficial in the case of a major outbreak.

“In the event that we have a major epidemic of influenza, whether it be a pandemic that’s world wide or a local epidemic in the Midwest, we now know that wearing a mask can make a difference in the spread of the disease.”

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