Sunday, February 18, 2007

Op-Ed: Let's Make Flu Masks a Fashion Statement

By Suzanne Pekow
Originally Written: February 11, 2007

This has serious runway potential...

In his carefully researched, professionally authoritative op-ed published in the New York Times last October, Lawrence M. Wein, a Stanford Business School professor, concluded that all the U.S. government needs to do to prepare for a deadly flu pandemic is provide enough face masks for citizens to wear until the end of flu season.

In my carefully un-researched, amateur opinion, there is very little chance you could get an entire nation of egocentric, er, rugged individualists to constantly don pieces of paper on their faces unless the threat were very, very imminent. People rarely even cover their mouths when they cough in a crowded subway car.

There’s a scene in Adam Sandler’s 1995 film, Billy Madison, in which Billy (Sandler) convinces an entire third grade class that peeing one’s pants is cool in order to save one child (who has just had an accident) from embarrassment:

3rd Grader: Hey look everybody, Billy peed his pants.
Billy Madison: Of course I peed my pants, everyone my age pees their pants. It's the coolest. 3rd Grader: Really?
Billy Madison: YES. You ain't cool, unless you pee your pants.

3rd Grader: Hey look, Ernie peed his pants too. Alright!

This example might seem like a stretch, but there is a connection here: we need face masks and other forms of hygienic disease prevention to become cool. When Americans think something is in fashion, there’s no telling what they’ll do to get their hands on it. Remember Beanie Babies? And the Jennifer Anniston “Friends” haircut of circa 1995? And more recently, the frenzy over the Playstation III, when people were literally shooting each other to get the newest video game system as soon as it hit the market?

Public health organizations need to head straight to the fashion moguls of this country to get those little paper-and-elastic contraptions on the cover of every magazine. That’s the way any major style trend makes its way into the country’s fashion vernacular. First the runway, then your local WalMart. I can see it now: Paris Hilton would have matching diamond-studded facemasks for her and her rat -- I mean, dog -- Tinker Bell. And professional sports teams would have their regulation-sized masks sponsored by Nike in matching team colors.

Then there'd be American Flag face masks. Camouflage facemasks. Masks with “What would Jesus Do?” printed in pink and black with tiny rhinestones highlighting the letters. Somebody would eventually get clever and create a mask with the image of a smiling mouth across the muzzle.

Once the facemask is ubiquitous, no one will think it’s strange to wear it when the big flu hits.

I say “when” and not “if” merely because Wein seems convinced that it’s only a matter of time before a deadly influenza strain emerges to challenge our country’s level of infectious disease preparedness. His opening sentence warns, “pandemic influenza is probably the world’s most serious near-term public health threat.”

Wein suggests that wearing facemasks, not frequent hand washing, is our country’s best line of defense against spreading the virus. That’s probably a good thing, considering we can barely convince people to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. It would be near impossible to get everybody to lather up every time they sneezed.

The only problem with the masks, according to Wein, is that people won’t wear them consistently. I think they will -- if we can make the masks the must-have item of the season. If we can get designer facemasks on “Top Ten” gift lists, and get gossip magazines to photograph celebrities wearing them when they go out for their morning coffee, we might be able to convince the public that hygiene is hot.

And once that happens, look out influenza. We’ll have style on our side.

ADDENDUM: Perhaps someone already beat me to the punch:

Courtesy of BigTwig

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Anonymous Sherri Weiss said...

Hi Suzanne:

Read your post on the flu masks and thought you might want to share with your readers a quick PSA from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases on preventing the flu this season - you can check it out at Thanks.

10:34 PM  
Blogger patty said...

Hi Suzanne
We think alike. I created fashionable flu masks. See them at

4:47 PM  

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