How can healthcare workers protect themselves from Ebola?

Dr. Alan R. Pope, MD
Pulmonary Disease Specialist
Healthcare workers can protect themselves against the Ebola virus by using special personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection. Healthcare workers also train on how to put on and remove their protective equipment to ensure the virus is not spread to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works with hospitals to keep the disease contained.
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There are several ways healthcare workers can protect themselves from Ebola. The precautions used by Doctors Without Borders seems to be excellent: They wear specifically designed hazmat suits and are rinsed off with a dilute chlorine solution before they remove the first set of gloves and the suits are removed. All putting on and taking off of hazmat suits (donning and doffing in the medical lingo) is in the presence of a buddy armed with a detailed check list. For example, the person washes their gloves over 8 times in doffing their outfit.  

Most US healthcare workers don't need this level of protection for routine patient contact. Unless a patient has actually been around an Ebola victim or traveled recently to West Africa, there's virtually no risk of that person having the disease. If you work in the ER or the ICU, just use the universal health and safety precautions, unless you are dealing with a potential Ebola carrier -- then see strict isolation and hazmat precautions above. 
Dr. Darria Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist
Healthcare workers must work closely with their own hospitals to make sure that they have the proper protocols in place to protect themselves. We have seen from the various patients successfully treated around the country in Atlanta and Nebraska that it IS possible to successfully treat someone without exposing a healthcare worker. Consequently, with the proper protection and training, healthcare workers will be able to continue to do their crucial task of treating patients while also keeping themselves safe. 
I am one of the many healthcare workers at major hospitals that have been put on alert to be looking out for symptoms -- and we do see cases of malaria that can look just like Ebola. It's very important to get a good travel history on anyone who has symptoms that could be compatible with Ebola, even very vague symptoms. It's up to us as healthcare workers to be vigilant, ask appropriate questions and notify the authorities if we have a valid reason for concern about the Ebola virus.  

Healthcare providers caring for a person with Ebola and the family and friends in close contact with the person with Ebola are at the highest risk of getting sick because they may come in contact with the blood or body fluids of the sick person. The Ebola virus also can be spread through contact with objects (like clothes, bedding, needles, syringes/sharps and medical equipment) that have been contaminated with the virus.

During outbreaks of Ebola, the disease can spread quickly within healthcare settings (such as a clinic or hospital) where staff are not wearing appropriate protective equipment, including masks, gowns, and gloves and eye protection.

Dedicated medical equipment (preferably disposable, when possible) should be used by healthcare personnel providing care. Proper cleaning and disposal of instruments, such as needles and syringes, is also important. If instruments are not disposable, they must be sterilized before being used again. Without adequate sterilization of the instruments, Ebola virus transmission can continue and amplify an outbreak.

Healthcare workers who may be exposed to people with Ebola should follow these steps:

  • Wear protective clothing, including masks, gloves, gowns and eye protection.
  • Practice proper infection control and sterilization measures.
  • Isolate people with Ebola from other people.
  • Avoid direct contact with the bodies of people who have died from Ebola.
  • Notify health officials if you have had direct contact with the blood or body fluids, such as but not limited to, feces, saliva, urine, vomit and semen of a person who is sick with Ebola. The virus can enter the body through broken skin or unprotected mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose or mouth.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.