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Johns Hopkins tweaks Ebola suit to improve comfort and safety

When a group from the Johns Hopkins University began developing a suit to protect health care workers dealing with the Ebola virus, the comfort of those wearing it wasn't the first thing on their minds — but it turned out to be critical.

Health care workers sometimes inadvertently exposed themselves to Ebola in their rush to remove the suits, which became unbearably hot and humid in the sun of West Africa.


"They spend hours in the suit feeling dehydrated," said Patience Osei, the product development manager for Ebola personal protective equipment at the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design. "You just want to get out of the suit to get a drink of water, but the suit was so complicated that health care workers got contaminated" by taking it off too quickly and carelessly.

The Ebola suit, under development by a team at Johns Hopkins since October 2014, is manufactured by DuPont. The first suits arrived in West Africa this year, and its shortcomings quickly became apparent.


The Ebola virus has killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa since the outbreak began in 2014, according to the World Health Organization. Most of the countries involved in the outbreak have been able to contain the virus, but some cases remain.

Osei said that the suit also can be used by health care workers battling other infectious diseases.

Using lessons learned from the first suits deployed in the field, they made several improvements to the suit, Osei said.

They developed a battery-powered system with a chemical drying agent to help remove humidity from the suit, making it more comfortable to wear.

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The team also reduced the number of suit pieces, making them easier and quicker to remove and reducing the number of potential contamination points. For instance, they replaced a headpiece that included a set of goggles that frequently fogged up with a one-piece hood.

They also wanted to make the suit look less intimidating, so they altered the hood to make the wearer's face more visible to those they were treating.

"Health care workers did look scary to their patients," Osei said. "We wanted them to look more human in the suit, we wanted their facial features to be more recognizable, so when a doctor smiles at the patient, the patient can see it and feel more comfortable."

The Hopkins team, including Osei, traveled to Liberia in June to test out the latest alterations.


Hundreds of health care workers were killed amid the Ebola outbreak, and Osei said the goal was to help prevent those deaths.

"We want an improved suit that will lead to lower contamination rates and save lives at the end of the day," she said. The deaths "should never happen to people who are putting their lives on the line to help people."