Gear Wars: Whose Ebola Protective Suit Is Better? : Goats and Soda Is it OK to expose a glimmer of skin? Is a thicker suit better? Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization have different standards.
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Gear Wars: Whose Ebola Protective Suit Is Better?

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Gear Wars: Whose Ebola Protective Suit Is Better?

Gear Wars: Whose Ebola Protective Suit Is Better?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. A mandatory quarantine - that's the new requirement in New York, New Jersey and Illinois for people arriving from West Africa who have had direct contact with Ebola patients. This news comes as health workers in New York City care for the first person diagnosed with Ebola there. The patient's name is Craig Spencer, and he had been working with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week announced new guidelines on the proper personal protective equipment that should be worn while treating Ebola patients like Spencer. The biggest change is that the CDC now says all skin should be covered. But in the heart of the outbreak in West Africa, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports there's wide variation in the protective gear being worn by people working with the infected.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Workers covered head to toe in hazmat suits have become an icon of this epidemic. Personal protective equipment is so ubiquitous that aid workers simply refer to it as PPE. In traffic in Monrovia, it's now possible to pull up next to a Landcruiser and a body collector - or an ambulance driver is decked out in a yellow jumpsuit, wraparound goggles and latex gloves.

But one set of PPE is often very different from another. Some versions cover every inch of the face with masks, hoods, and even plastic shields that look like welder's helmets. The World Health Organization is training Ebola workers with a simpler system that uses a gown, gloves, a partial hood and just a surgical mask and goggles to cover the face.

SRINIVAS MURTHY: The eyes, the nose, the mouth, are well protected.

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Srinivas Murthy is leading a WHO training session in Monrovia for workers who are about to be deployed to Ebola wards. Their faces are only partially covered by goggles and surgical masks.

MURTHY: The fact that there's maybe a glimmer of skin there is still reasonable given the risks going into an Ebola-treatment unit.

BEAUBIEN: There's a question about whether that glimmer of skin is a potential entry point for the virus. The CDC's new guidelines call for the workers' faces to be fully covered. Dr. Murthy says no set of gear offers 100 percent protection.

MURTHY: From our experience and from the WHO's expertise in terms of managing these wards, we are OK with that small glimmer of space knowing the risks and benefits of covering it up.

BEAUBIEN: One of the most dangerous moments on an Ebola ward is the undressing process. Murthy argues that with a simpler system, there's less chance of exposure to contaminated gear. And Murthy says training on Ebola safety is far more important than the hoods or the masks.

MURTHY: We don't want to teach them to wear 17 gloves and 14 hoods. We want to teach them to know why you're wearing what you're wearing and what the risks associated with Ebola transmission are.

BEAUBIEN: And what to do in any given situation.

MURTHY: So that if you feel unsafe, then you leave. For example, if there's a huge spill - you get something on your face, on your goggles - those kind of things. But that knowledge, I think, is more important than the equipment itself.

BEAUBIEN: The WHO's PPE also happens to be cheaper than some other versions. Murthy acknowledges that this is not an insignificant issue, especially when you're looking to outfit thousands of healthcare workers across West Africa. Just a few miles away from the WHO training, workers at the Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF Ebola Hospital, are putting on far heavier PPE that leaves no skin exposed.

DAN LUCEY: PPE - the main suit, the yellow suit is here. Usually, we just get everything that we need and put it together over here and then get dressed over here.

BEAUBIEN: Doctor Dan Lucey, who runs one of the wards of this Ebola-treatment unit, is a huge fan of the MSF version of PPE.

LUCEY: They have very good gloves here. Everything is great. The MSF personal protective equipment is the best. I can say that from having worked in Sierra Leone with other non-MSF work situations. You need a cover for the head.

BEAUBIEN: Lucey is a Professor of Immunology at Georgetown. Last month, he was volunteering at a government-run hospital in Sierra Leone. Lucey shivers when he recalls the flimsy latex gloves he was expected to use there. He calls the MSF-protective gear the gold standard.

LUCEY: This is the special hood. So there's no exposed skin whatsoever.

BEAUBIEN: MSF's equipment, however, does take longer to put on and take off than the WHO's protective gear. It's also heavier, including a thick rubber apron. The MSF's suits get so hot and sweaty that workers are only able to stay on an Ebola ward for 45 minutes to an hour. The WHO gear is lighter and allows nurses and doctors to stay in the wards for up to four hours.

There's still debate, however, about which is better. With so many healthcare workers getting infected during this outbreak - more than 400 at last count - the trend is towards more protective gear rather than less. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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