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The protective suits worn by Ebola health care workers have become iconic, but often they don't work very well. The suits overheat, fog up and sometimes the very people they're supposed to protect get contaminated. A team of researchers and students at Johns Hopkins is seeking to change that. The team has just won a competition by the U.S. Agency for International Development to design a safe, simpler Ebola suit. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The challenge was simple - come up with a new super spacesuit for Ebola workers that doesn't cost much more than the current ones. So in October the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design got some people together for a weekend long brainstorming session.
YOUSEPH YAZDI: This room was packed with stuff that we raided from, you know, the fabric store - sewing machines, glues, chocolate syrup.
BEAUBIEN: That's Youseph Yazdi - the head of the center. And yeah, he did just say that chocolate syrup was among the list of potential building blocks for the new Ebola protective gear. More than 80 students and researchers from across the university attended the event.
YAZDI: We just had everything that people need to really let their ideas soar and then put them into, you know, prototypes.
BEAUBIEN: What they eventually came up with beat out 1,500 other entries in the USAID's Ebola Grand Challenge. Their new yellow suit at first looks a lot like the other Ebola suits that have dominated news coverage from the outbreak, but it has some key differences. Brandon Craft, who runs a local biomedical design company and lectures at Hopkins, says one of them is that the garment is much easier to take off.
BRANDON CRAFT: It really starts with this breakaway zipper that allows you to open the rear entry, or the opening, of the suit very easily.
BEAUBIEN: The suit has two large tabs on the back, which the nurse or doctor rips apart. Then as they lean forward the suit peels off in one smooth motion. Craft calls this the cocoon effect. This is hugely important. Researchers believe that many of the hundreds of health care workers who've gotten infected with Ebola have been exposed while struggling to get out of their jumpsuits.
The Hopkins prototype not only has a rip-away zipper system, they moved the opening to the back of the garment, where Craft says it's less likely to have come in contact with infectious fluids on the Ebola ward.
CRAFT: We've heard stories of patients, you know, throwing up or liquids being splashed onto the aid workers as they're caring for these patients. So we hope this is going to make a big impact.
BEAUBIEN: The other big impact of this suit is the small cooling pack that straps onto the worker's belt.
HARIKRISHNA TANDRI: The air - as soon as you turn this on, you'll have air blowing out, which will be probably at the room temperature, but it is 0 percent humidity.
BEAUBIEN: Harikrishna Tandri is a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. He's demonstrating how the low-tech cooling system for the Ebola suit works. His cooling pack simply blows filtered air through a canister of silica pellets to pull all the moisture out of the air. This dry air causes the worker's own sweat to evaporate and cool them down.
TANDRI: And as long as you can keep evaporating the body fluid, the Ebola worker's going to feel cold and will be able to function inside the suit without having to change the suit so frequently.
BEAUBIEN: And the less they have to change their suits the less likely they'll get infected. The new Hopkins suit still has months to go before it might be used out in the field, but USAID is now backing its production both philosophically and financially. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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