Every day a diverse group of health care workers rely on medical gloves to guard against contracting or transmitting dangerous contagions.

In countries where gloves, face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are readily available, it can be easy to take this first line of defense for granted.

Unfortunately, in many places around the world, medical gloves are frequently unavailable. This results in the sudden and sometimes explosive spread of infectious disease.

Ebola Spreads for Want of Gloves

Nowhere is this lack of basic protection more pronounced at the moment than in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In Liberia, medical gloves are so scarce that doctors wrap their hands in plastic grocery bags to deliver babies, and nurses must routinely care for the ill with bare hands. Gloves are reserved for only the sickest of patients, and are often reused.

In Sierra Leone, where Ebola has been reported in every district, 30% of hospitals lack sterile gloves and 70% lack protective eyewear.

With conditions so ripe for the transmission of disease, the Ebola outbreak spread quickly from its epicenter in southeastern Guinea. As of September 18th there have been 5,347 suspected and confirmed cases, with 2,630 suspected case deaths, making it the largest Ebola outbreak to date and the first epidemic of the virus.

These numbers include an unprecedented number of health care workers. Because they lack gloves and other PPE, or do not use them properly, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on August 25th that more than 240 doctors and nurses have contracted Ebola. Over 120 have died.

Understandably, health care workers are demanding gloves and other PPE before returning to work.

In the meantime, outside organizations such as WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stepped in to provide support and coordinate workers, supplies and training. Clinics are being reopened, but these are quickly inundated with newly sick patients.

The greatest need continues to be the availability and proper use of basic PPE – gloves, face masks and protective eyewear. Without this first line of defense, it will be difficult to mitigate the Ebola outbreak.

SARS Lessons

The 2003 SARS epidemic taught us some valuable lessons. Foremost is the importance of controlling the disease at its source. That means strict adherence to infection control practices, including proper hand hygiene and gloving.

Unfortunately, due to familiarity or lack of time, heath care workers sometimes took shortcuts. The result? Hospital workers treating SARS patients became infected.

To halt the spread, hospitals placed monitors outside patients’ rooms to ensure everyone strictly followed infection control procedures. Only then was the deadly spread of SARS stopped.

Medical gloves, so ubiquitous with health care in the U.S. and much of the world, are a crucial piece of health care equipment often missing in other countries. The availability and proper use of gloves and other PPE is critical to halting the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola and SARS.

Even in countries where gloves are in every patient contact area, vigilance and diligence in adhering to infection control practices is critical to everyone’s safety.


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