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Anaesthetists debate masks with Oxford Union rules

Media release – August 25, 2005

Hidden behind a mask ? – anaesthetists debate issue under Oxford Union rules in Nelson next month

A popular image of anaesthetists is that of eyes peering over the top of a mask, surrounded by beeping machines while they keep us alive during our surgery.

Maybe that is why few patients can name their anaesthetist – a name without a face is quickly forgotten. But this may be about to change.

Next month an all-star cast is set to debate the relative merits of mask-wearing in the operating theatre during the combined annual scientific meeting of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists and the New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists in Nelson.

This has more significance given the presence of meeting co-sponsor, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine from the USA, regarded as one of the world’s premier academic medical institutions.

The mask debate will proceed under the rules of the famed Oxford Union (where former Prime Minister David Lange uttered his famous line ‘I can smell the uranium on your breath’), conference spokesman Phil Cornish said today.

The debate proposes ‘that sound infection control requires such practices as mask-wearing and hand-washing to be elemental to our practice’, and is opposed by ‘give me one good reason why I should wear a mask ?’

Professor Robert Sneyd of England and Associate Professor Michael Davies of Australia are proposing the motion, and Associate Professor Mark Thomas of the University of Auckland and Dr Malcolm Futter of Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland are opposing it.

``Debating such issues is important,’’ Dr Cornish said.

``Traditional practice is not necessarily scientific practice. Constant re-evaluation of all facets of our practice is required to ensure delivery of excellent medical care.’’

This year the meeting is largely themed on infection and infection control, which is timely given the epidemic of meningococcal disease and the meningococcal vaccination programme, the looming threat of avian flu, recent national and international bioterror threats, and the still unexplained outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Christchurch.

The September 14-17 conference is open to medical and nursing professionals and can be accessed at

Mr Greg Phillips of emergency management at Wellington Hospital will discuss earthquakes and tsunamis and their damage patterns, with special reference to their effect on hospitals.

Dr Mace Ramsay, an intensivist from Dunedin, will talk about the post-tsunami response in Asia and NZ's preparedness for such an event. He was deployed to Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Professor Mike Murray of Mayo Clinic, Florida will look at the use of biological agents in modern terror attacks. He has just written a chapter on bioterrorism in an American textbook.

Dr Mark Thomas, one of NZ's foremost authorities on infectious diseases, will talk about threats by SARS, Avian flu and other pandemic infectious diseases. Several anaesthetists died from SARS after being involved in early treatment.


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