Ebola patient carers at risk of infection when removing protective gear

24 October 2014

A team of American infectious disease and critical care experts have issued an alert for clinicians caring for Ebola patients that how they remove their personal protective gear can be just as crucial as wearing it to prevent exposure to the deadly virus.

In a commentary published online on Aug. 26 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the physician-specialists from Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina say rigorous steps exist — and must be taken — to avoid “inadvertent” contact of frontline caregivers’ exposed skin and mucous membranes to infected body fluids.

Personal protective equipment, including goggles or face shields, gloves and gowns, are effectively decreasing West African caregivers’ exposure to infected bodily fluids, but workers are still at risk “if removal of protective clothing that is contaminated with infectious bodily fluids is not done in a manner that prevents exposure,” say the authors.

“The physical exhaustion and emotional fatigue that come with caring for patients infected with Ebola may further increase the chance of an inadvertent exposure to bodily fluids on the outside of the personal protective equipment, leading to unwanted contact when the gear is removed,” the authors say. “The impulse to wipe away sweat in the ever-present hot, humid environment during personal protective equipment removal may lead to inadvertent inoculation of mucous membranes” in and on the nose, mouth and eyes.

According to the World Health Organization, the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has resulted in a “high proportion of doctors, nurses and other health care workers who have been infected.” These are mainly in the countries of the outbreak, but also some returning to the US have contracted the disease in the last few days.

To date, says the World Health Organization, more than 240 health care workers have developed the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. More than 120 have died, including prominent doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Despite the challenges of preventing inadvertent exposure from improper personal protective equipment removal, they say that health care workers are generally aware of and are using proper precautions.

For example, treatment sites in Africa administered by Médecins Sans Frontières, have established a systematic process to mitigate the risks associated with removal of personal protective equipment, including a buddy system in which health care workers walk each other through each step of the removal process to help ensure safety.

In the US, CEPAR, in collaboration with Perl, has established a number of clinical guidelines and tools to ensure Johns Hopkins hospitals, outpatient clinics and primary care offices take adequate precautions when encountering patients who have had a history of recent travel to West Africa.

Such precautions include proper procedures for the donning and doffing of PPE for any patient identified as having such a travel history and who has symptoms associated with Ebola.

“Despite its lethal nature, Ebola transmission can be interrupted with simple interventions and by focusing on basics. Improvement in basic health care infrastructure and providing an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, along with a ritualized process for donning and doffing personal protective equipment, are desperately needed to prevent further unnecessary infection and loss of life among the heroic health care workers who are on the front lines of this war,” the authors write in the commentary.


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