Opinion: Help for those in the battle against Ebola

Innovations in personal protection equipment could be vital in fighting the Ebola outbreak

Susan Birks
Deputy Editor

Confirmed cases of Ebola in Africa have now topped 20,000 with more than 7,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Some 678 healthcare workers are also known to have been infected, 382 of whom have died. While the situation is far better managed than in the early stages, the region is still in desperate need of outside help.

Ebola is classified by the WHO as a Risk Group 4 pathogen, requiring Biosafety level 4-equivalent containment precautions. Hard lessons are being learned about the difficulties of achieving this in the field in this impoverished region. Simple equipment, widely available in the West, is hard to come by in the quantities required in these isolated regions of Africa. The National Ebola Response Cell of Guinea has said it needs more than 5.6 million pairs of surgical gloves for its healthcare facilities, for example.

The situation has highlighted other difficulties: the West is used to operating in pressurised isolation units within brick-built hospitals, where the latest disinfectant vapour technology can be deployed, but how do you disinfect a canvas-based field hospital?

It is also apparent that current PPE is not ideal for the high humidity and heat, nor is it easy to remove without touching the outside.

However, disaster can be a catalyst for invention and new solutions are being developed. An advanced protective suit for Ebola healthcare workers has been devised by a Johns Hopkins team, in a federal funding contest set up to help combat the deadly disease. Its enhancements include a large visor integrated into the suit, air vents and a small battery-powered cooling device for the hood, a rear zipper and a novel non-contact doffing process.

Canadian company Design Shelter has also developed mobile hospital units that have an in-built specialised HVAC unit to control internal pressure and allow the use of disinfection technology.

Great ideas, but much more needs to be done to help those in the grip of this terrifying disease.

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