By Dr. Michel Rochat, SmartPPE Project Manager
On #EpidemicPreparednessDay, I’d like to share a little about what we do to help prepare for epidemics.
Scientists, medical professionals and public health authorities don’t have crystal balls and they don’t have magic bullets. It takes years of foresight (through research, epidemiology, expert modelling), along with ingenuity and perseverance to develop expertise and tools to prepare for an epidemic.
For us and our partners, the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola Virus Disease outbreak prompted us to think of what we could do to be ready to better respond in the future. The outbreak was devastating: more than 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths were reported.
Ebola is extremely infectious and among the challenges for treatment was a lack of appropriate isolation equipment and necessary equipment use training to reduce the risk of transmission. The WHO estimated in 2014 that 250 healthcare workers and staff were required for every 70 Ebola patients. Plus, on average 1,000 sets of adapted personal protective equipment (PPE) were needed per month for a ten-bed sized treatment centre.
Another key problem was that the available PPE was (and still is) very difficult to work in. Patients can barely see their caregivers, whose full bodies, heads and faces are fully covered, with only the eyes visible behind thick goggles. The disposable suits heat up so much that the wearer can only stay in it about 40 minutes at a time – so much sweat pools in the rubber boots that you can pour it out like opening a tap. Plus, it’s extremely difficult to put on and take off, leading to real risk of self-contamination. Finally, the commonly-used PPE must be discarded after a single use, leading to logistics and supply issues, and environmental waste.
With a view to developing and deploying PPE that could meet these kind of outbreak challenges, we at EPFL EssentialTech joined forces with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who provide frontline care in these settings and experts in infectious diseases from the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG). We also have additional funding support from Grand Challenges Canada.
Some seven years later, we are nearly there. Those years of foresight, ingenuity and especially perseverance have led to the SmartPPE suit, a fully reusable one-piece protective suit with an ingenious ventilation system.
Our SmartPPE suit is safe, cooler and more comfortable. Thanks to a large, clear face shield that doesn’t fog up, patients can see their caregivers’ faces, for improved care and sense of security. By reducing complexity for the user, SmartPPE requires less user training yet can reduce the risk of self-contamination. Finally, since SmartPPE is reusable, it will reduce the logistics, waste management and operational costs.
In anticipation of new outbreaks, a limited number of suits will be prepositioned in various key regions where Ebola may strike. This will enable fast and sustainable response without the need for extensive training of local staff. It will also allow faster ramp-up of Ebola treatment centres as needed, depending on the evolution of the outbreak.
These features all come together to offer a tool that enables better epidemic preparedness – starting with Ebola in this case – in high-risk areas.
Check out the SmartPPE project page ? www.smartppe.org
See more on Epidemic Preparedness Day? https://www.un.org/en/observances/epidemic-preparedness-day