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Bio-defense research not for all, not Hollywood

Bio-defense research not for all, not Hollywood

Technician William Ayrey models a protective biosuit, Monday, Oct. 1, 2007 in Federica, Del. (AP Photo/Gary Emeigh

Dr. Lisa Hensley, a 35-year-old civilian microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., looks out from behind the face shield of her blue Bio-Safety Level suit, Thursday, March 6, 2008 in Frederick, Md (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

Dr. Lisa Hensley, a civilian micro-biologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md, zips into her blue Chemtoriun suit, or Bio-Safety Level 4 suit, Thursday, March 6, 2008, in Frederick, Md., inside "The Slammer", a containment unit set up to quarantine lab workers who may have become infected with a deadly infectious disease. (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

Dr. Lisa Hensley, a civilian micro-biologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md, puts on her blue Chemtoriun suit, or Bio-Safety Level 4 suit, Thursday, March 6, 2008, in Frederick, Md., inside "The Slammer", a containment unit set up to quarantine lab workers who may have become infected with a deadly infectious disease. (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

A blue BioSaftey Level 4 suit rests on a bed, Thursday, March 6, 2008, inside "The Slammer" at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

A bank of oxygen tubes line a wall, Friday, March 6, 2008, inside "The Slammer" at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. (AP Photo/Timothy Jacobsen)

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) _ Actor Kevin Spacey's character dies of a deadly virus in the movie "Outbreak" after he stretches his air hose too far and it rips a hole in his protective biohazard suit.

That's just Hollywood.

"It's not at all like that," said Dr. Lisa Hensley, a civilian microbiologist for the Army who wears the identical full-body suit while handling Ebola strains so deadly they kill 90 percent of infected victims. Safety features of the suit and her top-security laboratory, called a "hot zone," make the movie scenario very unlikely, she said in an interview.

Hensley, 35, is on the front line of President Bush's expanding program to defend the country against biological attacks.

One of the Army's top dangerous disease scientists, she's in charge of a team at Fort Detrick, Md., working on vaccines and treatments to counter a germ attack or natural outbreak.

She works with deadly viruses including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Machupo and Junin. She has researched Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and smallpox, and helped develop possible treatments for SARS and Ebola.

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Hensley's employer, is responsible for protecting soldiers but works closely with civilian agencies that guard against epidemics.

The number of top-security labs is increasing. The Government Accountability Office reported last fall that there were five such labs — designated Bio-Security Level 4 — registered with the government before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. With expansion of the bio-defense program, the number eventually will expand to 15, the GAO said. USAMRIID, as it is known, is not new: it was created in 1969.

Hensley has one of the world's most dangerous jobs, but she is more concerned about a needle, a scalpel or other sharp instrument penetrating her layers of gloves than a rip in her suit.

Not long after starting her Army work in 1998, she cut through her gloves with a blunt scissors while working with Ebola. Her finger was bleeding. She left the lab and quickly washed her hands.

"I was fine until everyone else started freaking out," she said. That's when she started thinking, "Oh, what am I going to do?"

In fact, there was only one thing she was allowed to do: go quickly to her facility's isolation ward, called "The Slammer."

There, doctors decide whether a worker lives in isolation for up to a month, depending on a particular virus' incubation period.

"If I hadn't washed my hands, I would have been in The Slammer 28 days," she said. Instead, she was allowed to leave but was monitored for the next three weeks.

Despite the dangerous work at Detrick, "The Slammer" is not a busy place. Only 20 people have been kept isolated there in the past 35 years, and none became ill.

A normal work environment that most people take for granted is impossible in a top-security laboratory. There are no conversations by a water cooler.

"You learn to read lips of co-workers, use hand gestures and make eye contact," Hensley said.

Walking in a bulky suit? "It's like shuffling."

If you have to sneeze? If your nose itches? "You turn your head down," so you can wipe away the mucous or rub your nose into the suit below the visor so it stays clear.

Life in these labs doesn't imitate Hollywood. Hensley said the part of the biohazard suit where the air hose attaches is reinforced and has never ripped away in her work experience.

Even with such a tear, as imagined in "Outbreak," the worker would be safe. Fresh air would still be pumped in, and air would continue to exit the suit through a series of one-way valves called baffles — and go out through the rip.

The system creates a shield for the lab worker. Fresh air also is coming into the room, making the risk of exposure from a tear almost negligible, Hensley said. There is enough air in the suit to last five minutes after disconnecting the air hose, normally adequate for getting out of the containment area.

When Hensley hooks up her air hose, she hears a constant whooshing sound inside her hood. She has the option of wearing ear plugs but rarely does any more. Hoses weave through the blue plastic suit like octopus legs.

In the suit made by ILC Dover LP of Delaware, the hoses distribute 10 percent of the air to each arm and leg, and send the other 60 percent to the plastic-shield hood.

Hensley can't just casually walk into her work area.

She dons surgical scrubs and a surgical cap under her suit, tapes up her socks and gloves, inspects her gloves for holes or rot, tightens her air filter canister, hooks up her air intake hose, checks the hoses inside the suit, lubricates the zipper, tapes up her boots, and takes a misty chemical shower with disinfectant.

Leaving for lunch is too cumbersome for Hensley, who usually works through an entire day without eating or drinking. The Army, however, recommends a break after two-to-four hours. The air going into the suit is very dry, and workers become thirsty.

Just leaving for lunch can take a half hour. A lunch break means a series of steps including a chemical shower, taking off the boots, gloves and suit and changing into normal clothes. To re-enter the lab, a worker must do the preparation and checks all over again and take another chemical shower.

In weeding out job applicants, Hensley said she needs to find out whether applicants have problems in small places.

"If you have claustrophobia," she said, "this is not a good job for you."

 
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