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Ebola Protective Suits Are In Short Supply


We're hearing a lot in today's program about the people who care for patients with Ebola. There is a shortage of suits to protect them.


Health care workers are supposed to wear personal protective equipment, or PPEs. They cover every part of the body, from the hood and goggles, to gloves and coveralls, down to the boots.

INSKEEP: PPEs are in short supply because clinics in West Africa can go through hundreds in a single day. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For one month earlier this fall, Dr. Massoud Javadi spent many hours of the day wearing head-to-toe protective gear, or PPE. The Houston doctor was in Foya, a small town in northern Liberia. He worked at a clinic set up by Doctors Without Borders. Javadi was surrounded by more than a hundred Ebola patients, but he says he wasn't worried.

MASSOUD JAVADI: When you're in the isolation unit in your PPE outfit, that's pretty much the safest place to be. You're surrounded by people, but you have maximum protection on.

NORTHAM: You can buy a full protective outfit for as cheap as $15 online. But Doctors Without Borders uses a higher-quality PPE, costing about $75 apiece. Javadi says they are thick and unwieldy and particularly tough in the extreme heat.

JAVADI: After about 30 or 40 minutes, your goggles have fogged up; your socks are completely drenched in sweat. You're just walking in water in your boots. And at that point, you have to exit for your own safety.

NORTHAM: Javadi says many people - doctors, nurses, people recovering the dead - wear the PPEs and that his clinic occasionally ran low on stocks. More had to be brought in from other centers. He says the apron and boots can be disinfected and reused. Everything else must be destroyed.

JAVADI: The gloves and the gowns and the masks, those are all disposable and must be burned. And we go through a lot of them, boxes and boxes every day.

NORTHAM: Doctors Without borders says it has about 25,000 protective clothing kits in each of its half-a-dozen clinics spread across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - about a two-month supply. But the Centers for Disease Control says the number of Ebola victims is increasing exponentially and could reach tens of thousands by the end of the year. That's created a surge in demand for the PPEs. Dupont, a major manufacturer, says it has recently tripled its production. Kimberly-Clark has also increased production, says Judson Boothe, the company's senior product supply director.

JUDSON BOOTHE: We've had ministries. We've also had non-government organizations that are trying to get product all the way down to communities and then certainly the health care networks within those regions are trying to respond and fill out their stockpiles as well.

NORTHAM: The United Nations say the World Health Organization plans to send about 400,000 PPEs to West Africa and that 3M is also working on a plan to provide up to half-a-million a month. The Japanese government will donate another half-a-million from its stockpiles. But aid agencies such as UNICEF and AmeriCares says that the current ongoing demand isn't being met. Boothe maintains there are enough PPEs available, but getting them to the agencies is challenging. He says part of the problem is a complicated ineffective supply chain involving too many distributors and intermediaries.

BOOTHE: Sometimes, you do get speculators that try to turn this into a profit exercise where they have investors, and they try to buy up a lot of stuff. And then they try to sell it at the highest price to the highest bidder. And then also, some of it is just dealing with distributors who are dealing with even other layers of distributors. And these products are passing hands three and four times.

NORTHAM: Boothe says it would be more efficient if all the agencies coordinated through one large entity such as the World Health Organization. Michael Rettig is the executive director of LIFT, a disaster logistics company which is shuttling supplies into Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. He says there were reports of the PPEs not making it to the clinics in West Africa because of what he calls shrinkage.

MICHAEL RETTIG: We know that there were some shipments that went into Liberia and within a few days ended up on the black market.

NORTHAM: Rettig says his company has set up a system to prevent such theft. But he says another headache is logistics. Most of the PPEs will go through Monrovia. He says the airport there only has the capacity to unload two, maybe three, aircraft a day, which could be a challenge when more cargo starts arriving. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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