The flower filled masks could have inadvertently been effective against airborne pathogens, in that they acted as filters. However, the Plague was most likely transmitted through fleabites, which would have rendered the masks useless. Nonetheless, these masks became an integral part of the Black Death's drama and so have worked their way into the European psyche, still worn at festivals and other occasions.
An old joke, told in the form of a Confucius proverb goes like this: “Man who go to bed with itchy butt wake with stinky finger.” Yeah, it’s a gross joke told by schoolboys at recess, but it well describes the human habit of touching everything with our hands —and I mean everything. Opposable thumbs and delicate manual dexterity make the human hand the most useful tool ever, even in this computer-controlled automated world. Collecting germs as we touch all things is an unavoidable side effect of human life.
Most germs die rather quickly when exposed to air. Few live long enough to travel from surface to hand to moist tissue (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds, etc). Some germs are hearty enough to last for days. Airborne microbes usually live even shorter lives, including most blood borne pathogens. But good health cannot depend upon the lack of germ longevity. We must, especially in a survival situation, take precautions.
In Asian countries, many people wear surgical masks as they travel about in crowded areas. They do this to prevent spreading their own germs to others and to keep from collecting germs spread by others. Asians are more concerned about their roles in society then people in most western cultures, wherein it is common for someone suffering some horrible disease to make no effort to prevent infecting others. I’m all for wearing surgical masks in western cultures, but western culture’s slavery to style would never prevent it.
Typhoid Mary is proof ignorance is a very effective spreader of diseases. Mary was a cook and never washed her hands before and during meal preparations, hands teaming with the Salmonella Typhi bacteria. When the family she cooked for became ill, she hired herself to another family until they became ill. She would again move on, never leaving forwarding addresses, so it took a long time to find and connect the spread of the disease to her.
Nonetheless, if she had simply washed her hands regularly, before and occasionally during meal preparation, few if anyone eating her prepared food would have become ill, and she would have lived in obscurity as just another Irish immigrant. She would have also avoided some twenty-six years in quarantine. If this unfortunate, ignorant woman can teach us anything, she demonstrates the exhibition of symptoms is not necessary for one to transmit diseases, even horrible diseases like typhoid.
In a survival situation, it is important to limit exposure to danger. One danger easily avoided is disease due to poor personal hygiene. Attention to personal and communal hygiene grows difficult as one’s attention and energy becomes focused upon other pressing issues like finding things to eat. It’s easy to let hygiene slip and put off brushing teeth, cleaning feet, or washing hands.
If you are in a group survival situation, insist the group dig latrine ditches (or holes) and cover each deposit directly after delivery. Use the dirt from the dig. Establish bathing areas and insist everyone take a regular bath. Americans make a habit of bathing daily, although a bath that often is not really necessary. Nonetheless, when bathing becomes difficult and inconvenient, people tend to put it off for longer and longer periods. The group leader must be firm, create rules, and insist the group live by them.
Most importantly, make sure everybody in camp washes his or her hands throughout the day—after bathroom breaks, before meals, and in-between. Have a hand washing area set up with soap and, if possible, hot water. Make it as convenient as possible, and then push, push, push for compliance. A common transmission of diseases is when feces comes into contact with the hand and then the hand touches the mouth, eyes, nose, or open wound, your own or someone else’s. If you even just think about going to the bathroom, wash your hands afterward.
Water hot enough to kill germs will scald skin. Nonetheless, washing with water as hot as a person can stand helps soap do its thing. Soap breaks water tension and allows the water to get under and lift dirt off the skin. So if you are storing supplies for survival situations, remember to store enough bars of hand soap, shampoo, and other soaps to supply your needs until you learn how to make your own.
Wash your hands—often.