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Better Protective Suit Sought for Ebola Caregivers

  • June Soh

A team from a university in Maryland is working to improve protective equipment for health professionals battling the Ebola epidemic — 329 of whom have died of the disease to date, according to the World Health Organization.

The Ebola virus is transmitted through contact with an infected person's bodily fluids. To protect themselves, doctors and nurses must wear special suits that isolate them from the virus.

But in some cases, said Rich Lamporte, vice president of the global health organization Jhpiego, the suit is part of the problem.

“We found it to be of much higher risk than they need to be, primarily because of the process of taking it off puts the health care workers at risk,” he said.

Lamporte said safe removal of the current suit requires about 20 steps, which creates opportunity for error. And West Africa's hot, humid climate makes it uncomfortable for health workers to spend more than 40 minutes inside the airtight suit.

Safety, comfort

So the call went out from Jhpiego and Johns Hopkins University for a better, safer, more comfortable design. More than 70 people took part in the Ebola Design Challenge — students, health professionals, even a wedding gown designer.

"The wedding gown and the Ebola suit have a lot more in common than one would think," said Jill Andrews, the wedding gown expert. "They both are multilayered garments that require a lot of diligence to remove. Being a person that is a pattern maker and also knowing how garments are made and constructed, I knew that I can contribute."

That's the idea behind the challenge, said Youseph Yazdi, executive director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design in Baltimore.

“To solve the problem, you need all different perspectives at the table," he said. "If we just address it from an engineering or technical perspective, the design will be a failure.”

The Hopkins team entered a design based on ideas in a separate Ebola suit competition sponsored by the U.S. government. It was recently chosen as a semifinalist. One of the team's improvements was to the headset, which currently requires goggles and two surgical masks.

Less face touching

Tim Campbell, a Hopkins researcher, said the team "wanted to minimize the amount of face touching that went on in the removal or doffing process. So we switched to this version with a head covering system. We installed the vents in the side of the mask.”

Hopkins bioengineering student Erin Reisfeld said she was excited to be on the volunteer team.

“Our program has a global health aspect, too, already," she said. "So a lot of us are very passionate about helping out the developing world.”

The Hopkins team's goal is ambitious: to create a new, low-cost Ebola suit in a matter of months, not years.

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