American health officials are scrambling to settle the critical question of how hospitals handle and dispose of medical waste from Ebola patients — just as a Dallas hospital treats the first patient to be diagnosed with the virus on U.S. soil, a government official said. Experts have warned that conflicting U.S. regulations over how such waste should be transported could make it very difficult for U.S. hospitals to safely care for patients with Ebola, a messy disease that causes diarrhea, vomiting and in some cases, bleeding from the eyes and ears.
Safely handling such waste presents a dual challenge for regulators, who want to both prevent the accidental spread of the deadly disease and avert any deliberate attempts to use it as a bioweapon. Most U.S. hospitals are not equipped with incinerators or large sterilizers called autoclaves that could accommodate the large amounts of soiled linens, contaminated syringes and virus-spattered protective gear generated from the care of an Ebola patient, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Public Health Committee.
Duchin told Reuters that he is not aware of whether Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas has its own incinerator or large autoclave, but if it does not, “they are going to have to find a temporary solution for managing infectious waste. That puts the hospital in a very difficult situation.”
Texas Health Presbyterian didn’t immediately respond to NBC News about how it disposes of its waste. The infected Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who began showing symptoms after arriving from his native Liberia last month, remains in stable but critical condition at the hospital.