How Tyvek® Suits are Helping Stop the Ebola Outbreak

Ebola Outbreak and Tyvek

West Africa’s Ebola epidemic from this past summer is the worst in history. As of August 31, 2014 the Center for Disease Control was reporting 3,707 total cases with 1,848 suspected case deaths. And probably the most tragic aspect of the epidemic, is the manner in which it spreads, from the infected, to caregivers who tend to be close relatives. Treatment and containment of Ebola becomes a double-edged sword where the depth and intimacy of care for the infected determines the risk to caregivers for contracting the virus themselves, which is why medical professionals tasked with containing the epidemic while attempting to cure the infected are dressing themselves in Tyvek® Hazmat Suits.

The Dilemma of Bedside Manner vs. Containment

Dr. William Fischer from University of North Carolina School of Medicine is intimately familiar with ways humanity and mortality become intermingled in medicine. When he traveled to Guinea last May to assist with the World Health Organization, and Doctors Without Borders’ mission to reduce mortality from Ebola virus in rural West-African communities, that intermingling showed up in the ways local traditions of care for the infected, and grieving for those lost, had become the primary methods of disease transmission. It seems so easy, obvious even, to consider the conversations from a purely clinical perspective. But Fischer’s experience this past summer exposed him, maybe above all else, to a more nuanced question. But the answer was still obvious.

“With Ebola you can’t have a good death,” Fischer wrote in a news update published on unchealthcare.org. “You are isolated from your friends, your family, your home. You are cared for by people whose primary focus is on stopping transmission from infected to susceptible and from patient to provider rather than comfort and cure.”

“These people often die without the comfort of a human hand,” he wrote. “without seeing someone’s full face or even just knowing that a loved one is near.”

But in spite of everything, Fischer never questioned the practice of outfitting relief workers in medical crises involving deadly pathogens like Ebola, with Personal Protective Equipment kits that include Tyvek® suits.

There were however, some who did. An article published on Fox News’s Health page on Sept. 02, 2014 cited Spanish researchers who had assumed a critical tone toward the practice of outfitting healthcare workers in head-to-toe protective gear. The article referenced a study that had reduced the function of hazmat suits to only “protect against airborne disease.” Other medical experts who were also cited, clarified that it was a false assumption.

How Ebola Spreads

According to the CDC, Ebola is borne in bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, vomit, feces, and tears, all of which pour excessively and unpredictably from the infected. While it almost never spreads through airborne particles emitted by sneezing or coughing, Ebola patients sweat continuously, especially in West-Africa’s tropical climate, and may vomit or bleed from the mouth and nose, at any time. Healthcare workers who treat patients are the same people who are trained and tasked with the clean up infected fluids to prevent further spread of pathogens. It would be woefully simpleminded to consider their contact with the disease incidental in nature.

Healthcare Workers Can Never Be Too Careful

Just ask Dr. Kent Brantly, and Ms. Nancy Writebol, the two American medical workers who were infected with Ebola in Liberia. It remains unclear exactly how Brantly and Writebol contracted the disease. But as Fischer stated in a video published on time.com on Aug. 5, 2014, that even in spite of all the precautions, two pairs of gloves, Tyvek® suits, and rigorous sterilization practices, medical workers are still handling needles, medical instruments, and still come into contact with the bodily fluids of patients.

Healthcare workers are advised to only scale down their use of hazmat suits when treating patients who are on the mend, and no longer highly symptomatic. Prior to patient recovery stages, there really are no other safe options. Friends family members and the community at large may find the appearance of healthcare workers in full Tyvek® suits a bit alarming, but if so, those alarmed responses are certainly preferable to contracting and spreading the deadly virus.


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