It’s not the strange smells that pervade University residence halls that will soon have students wearing masks around campus this winter. Students will don the masks for cash.

The masks are part of a two-year study on the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical tactics in curbing the spread of influenza. The study, called M-FLU, is being conducted by the University’s School of Public Health.

Researchers will track the health of about 2,250 students during the height of flu season. Residents of Couzens, Alice Lloyd and Mary Markley residence halls – all notorious germ-breeding Petri dishes – will be asked to wear facemasks for much of the day for several weeks. Students in Bursley Hall will follow a hand-washing regimen in addition to wearing masks. Researchers will study control groups in East Quadrangle and Stockwell residence halls.

The students won’t be making a fashion statement, but they’ll earn about $30 to $100.

Researchers hope the results will help officials understand how to fight a pandemic like bird flu, which experts say is likely to strike the United States in the future.

Epidemiology Prof. Arnold Monto, the lead M-FLU researcher, said the practices need to be proven scientifically before they’re relied on in a pandemic.

“You see pictures of people in Asia with facemasks on, but Asia doesn’t have the data supporting the method’s effectiveness,” Monto said.

Because mass vaccination wouldn’t be a practical defense, hand-washing and facemasks are being explored as an alternative form of intervention.

Scientists would first have to identify the virus, then develop its vaccine, Monto said. That means a pharmaceutical defense wouldn’t be available for up to eight months after a first outbreak.

Researchers will monitor the patient records at University Health Services and look at other studies in the state to determine when flu season is in full force.

As hard as it is to predict the onset of the annual flu season, scientists face an even greater challenge in trying to forecast a coming pandemic.

Monto said it’s impossible to determine when the next pandemic will strike, but history shows that one can be expected.

“A new influenza virus emerges on a regular basis, and when that happens, it goes worldwide,” he said.

Monto said he suspects that avian flu will be the culprit behind the next pandemic. The last three pandemics of the century, in 1918, 1957 and 1968, were caused by strains of avian flu that mutated to become contagious among humans.

That the United States hasn’t had a pandemic in more than 30 years gives scientists the impression that one might be coming soon. This has lead to a push for surveys like the M-FLU study.

To take part in the study, students in the selected residence halls must fill out an application on the M-FLU website. Subjects are expected to participate in the study for six weeks or until the end of flu season.

Supervision of the study will largely rely on the honesty of participants. But subjects who admit to neglecting the practices in the weekly surveys will still give insight into the methods’ viability, Monto said.

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