For health-care workers taking care of Ebola patients in West Africa, one of the biggest logistical problems has been the "moon suits" they must wear to protect against being infected by the deadly virus. The suits are hot. Taking them off is a meticulous, multistep process that can leave no room for error.
Now, a protective suit designed by a team from Johns Hopkins has been chosen as one of the winners in a global competition for solutions to increase the protection and comfort of front-line workers battling Ebola. The competition was launched in early October by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the lead agency coordinating the U.S. government Ebola response.
The suit is easier to take off, and has a small battery-powered source to cool the user by blowing air into the hood, said Youseph Yazdi, executive director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design, which worked with Jhpiego, an international health nonprofit group and university affiliate, and Clinvue, a health-care innovation and design consulting company in Baltimore. If major manufacturers sign on, Yazdi and U.S. officials hope a version of the new protective suit could be on the ground within a few months.
The goal of the competition was to come up with solutions that could get into the field as quickly as possible, without costing a lot of money. So the team used the same lightweight material that major manufacturers are currently using. But they redesigned it so the hood and the rest of the suit are attached. And they re-positioned a zipper from the front to the back of the suit. They reconfigured the zipper with pull tabs that allow the wearer to unzip easily, so the suit essentially peels away.
As a result, "when you want to remove the garment, the zipper opens so the doffing process goes from 20 steps down to five or six and goes from minutes and minutes down to a few seconds," he said.
"You don't need a buddy to help you. You don't have to touch the hood or grab around your face. It's quick and a lot safer," said Yazdi.
The prototype also uses a large clear visor in the hood, making it easier for front-line workers to see.
Front-line workers need to be protected from the contagious body fluids of Ebola patients, during treatment and while removing a soiled suit. The suit material prevents fluid from penetrating, but it also means the person's body heat has nowhere to escape. Clinics and treatment centers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have no air-conditioning. Working in the region's extreme heat and humidity, healthcare personnel often describe taking off their boots and pouring out the accumulated sweat.
To keep workers cool, the prototype uses a belt-worn battery pack, about the size of a runner's fanny pack. It blows dry, filtered air into the hood. It doesn't have to be cool air, Yazdi said (that would have cost more and been more complicated). But just having dry air helps sweat evaporate from the skin, which helps cooling. The battery can be recharged with a cellphone charger.
The team simulated the heat and humidity in a room that was about 98 degrees and 85 percent humidity. Wearing a regular protective suit, Yazdi felt like he was going to collapse within minutes. Using the cool-air technology, he was fairly comfortable, he said.
Field testing is the next phase, which will be done by Jhpiego, while the team and U.S. officials talk to manufacturers. Wendy Taylor, who is overseeing the Ebola global competition at USAID, said some of the design innovations in the Hopkins prototype, such as location and reconfiguration of the zipper and adding pull tabs, shouldn't be very hard to do.
"Manufacturers are actively involved in the massive response as part of this particular outbreak," she said. "We have real interest. . .We're looking at how we can fast-track the easy stuff."
The Hopkins protective suit was among three winning innovations that will share about $1.7 million, U.S. officials said. How the funds will be divided has yet to be worked out. The winners, announced Friday, will undergo intensive testing to prepare for production and field use. The other two innovations are an antiseptic gel applied to the skin that provides up to six hours of protection against pathogens, by Aquarius GEP and Innovative BioDefense; and a long-lasting spray that kills and repels microbes to prevent surface contamination, by SPR Advanced Technologies.