Is the Vuvuzela a Public Health Threat?

June 13, 2011

Can vuvuzelas make you sick? They’re certainly irritating: the drone from the two-foot long plastic horns is so loud and distracting that FIFA considered banning them during last year’s World Cup in South Africa. Last April, a study in the South African Medical Journal found that the sound from a vuvuzela can approach 140 dB, more than sufficient to damage hearing. Players on the pitch have a hard time hearing over it. “It is impossible to communicate,” Argentine forward Lionel Messi told The Times. “It’s like being deaf.

The vuvuzela may also be a singularly effective way of spreading a cold, the flu, or worse. A study by public-health researchers in London, published in May in PLoS ONE, revealed that the vuvuzela “is an efficient means of propagating large numbers of aerosols.” By “aerosols” they mean those potentially germ-carrying droplets of water you release into the air whenever you cough, sneeze, talk, or simply open your mouth. Using a laser particle counter, the researchers found that a person shouting through a rolled-up piece of paper expels about 7,000 droplets per second into the surrounding air. That’s more than a cough (5,000 particles per second) but fewer than a sneeze (900,000 particles)–yet far below the 4 million droplets per second broadcast by someone blowing a vuvuzela, the study found. Imagine yourself surrounded by a stadium full of vuvuzela blowers; that’s quite a rain of spittle. The study looked only at the vuvuzela’s ability to spread water droplets, not at its ability to transmit disease per se. But that subject begs further investigation, the study’s authors note, especially given that South Africa boasts the highest urban prevalence of tuberculosis in the world. In the meantime, the researchers “recommend, as a precautionary measure, that people with respiratory infections should be advised not to blow their vuvuzela in enclosed spaces and where there is a risk of infecting others.” Heard loud and clear.

Lai KM, Bottomley C, & McNerney R (2011). Propagation of respiratory aerosols by the vuvuzela. PloS one, 6 (5) PMID: 21629778

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