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Doctors, Engineers, and a Wedding Dress Maker Design a Better Ebola-Proof Suit

Chocolate sauce, it turns out, is an important weapon in the ongoing fight against infectious diseases

image via YouTube screen capture

To properly fight Ebola, you have to dress the part.

To date that’s meant a full body, multi-part hazmat suit, complete with goggles, gloves, and boots, all designed to provide maximum protection from exposure to the infectious disease. They are quite literally an aid worker’s first line of defense when dealing with dangerous diseases. They are also, it turns out, long overdue for an upgrade.

When it comes to hazmat suits, the challenge is often a matter of time. Suiting up properly can take as long as twenty minutes, says Wired. Once on, the suits’ layered design can render them intensely uncomfortable to wear, with workers usually lasting around 45 minutes before needing to start the undressing process, according to PBS Newshour. To complicate matters further, even when worn correctly, a standard hazmat suit doesn’t necessarily provide a fully seamless barrier against infection, since the helmet is an entirely separate unit from the rest of the protective clothing.

To address these challenges, employees from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) began reaching out and asking for volunteers to help with a new challenge: Build a better Ebola suit.

image via youtube screen capture

Accepting the call were doctors, researchers, students, and even a wedding dress designer. Over sixty people in all converged on the campus of Johns Hopkins University this past winter for a JHU-sponsored “Grand Challenge” to assess realistic ways of improving upon the suit’s design. Constrained by real-world considerations (for example, changing the suit’s material to something other than the currently-used Tyvek fabric would be too expensive), the team began exploring the hazmat suit’s fundamental design flaws. Things like: accessibility, ventilation, and contamination-points.

As Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design’s Youseph Yazdi explained to PBS' Mary Jo Brooks, one of the team’s secret weapons was chocolate sauce: "Because you want the see if you can protect yourself from contamination. So you rub the stuff all over yourself and then try to take off the suit and then see if any of it got on your skin. That’s — it’s a poor man’s simulation."

What they came up with is a prototype that’s lighter, simpler, and easier to put on.

The suit design was selected for funding by USAID along with fourteen others from out of fifteen hundred other ideas submitted by teams and tinkerers around the world. As PBS reports, the prototype is currently undergoing further testing and design refinement before it’s scheduled for manufacturing this summer.

This isn’t the first instance of non-professionals revamping an existing tool to better combat highly infectious diseases. Earlier this year a team of volunteers, partnering with both Google engineers and Doctors Without Borders, helped create a specially designed “Ebola-proof” computer tablet to be used in disease hot-zones without fear of contamination.

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