Opinion: Ebola – lessons learned one year on

The Ebola crisis of the past 12 months has highlighted some of the shortcomings of personal protection equipment

Susan Birks
Deputy Editor

A year has passed since the World Health Organization’s African Regional Office reported an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Guinea. To date, there have been more than 25,000 cases of Ebola reported from five West African countries, the hardest-hit being Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with more than 10,000 reported deaths.

While for some the crisis may nearly be over with the number of new cases down to single figures, in March Guinea reported its highest weekly case total so far this year, says the WHO.

It has been a long time since the world has been threatened by such a deadly epidemic and many lessons have been learned during this year. Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, and as a result personal protection equipment (PPE) has been key in preventing its spread.

The supply of state-of-the-art PPE, however, proved problematic. Among the issues (aside from cost) was the African climate, which meant that those wearing bodysuits and masks quickly overheated. The difficulty in removing the suits also increased the risk of contamination. Other issues were the inability to see clearly or drink while wearing masks, and identifying personnel once they were fully gowned.

As a result, the US Agency for International Development’s ‘Grand Challenge’ called for innovations that could help fight future Ebola outbreaks. New suits have been designed that offer improved vision and are more breathable, and that can be removed more easily.

Two separate lawsuits currently in progress in the US highlight the West’s lack of preparedness for such events. One court case filed by Nina Pham, the nurse asked to treat Thomas Eric Duncan in Texas who then contracted Ebola, cites a lack of advice about the disease and highlights the need for staff trained in biosafety practices to be available at all hospitals. The other (Shahinian v. Kimberly-Clark) claims that bodysuits marketed as suitable for use in an Ebola situation were not watertight, suggesting that garment standards may need some revision in future.

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