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A US expert has advised that face masks that shield against dust and germs could be a key factor in preventing a pandemic spreading if, as he believes likely, a bird flu pandemic emerges.

Dr. Ralph Cordell of the Centre for Disease Control said it was a 'matter of time' before the lethal strain of bird flu crossed the species barrier in a way that made human to human contact possible, the Michigan-based Daily Press reports.

He argued that preparations - including the provision of face masks - should be made before the event, adding 'The worst time to put on a life preserver is when the boat goes down'.

Mr Cordell said such barrier methods and other measures such as voluntary self-quarantine would help to prevent the disease spreading.

While Dr Cordell is advocating face masks, another American expert, Gregory Evans, director of the Institute for Biosecurity at Saint Louis University, said this was an area on which the government should carry out more research, the Joplin Globe reports.

Speaking at a planning conference in Missouri last week, Mr Evans noted the widespread use of the masks in Asia during the Sars outbreak.

Last year in Britain the Conservatives questioned UK government contingency policy on bird flu, suggesting face masks should be stockpiled.

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