By Yasmeen Abutaleb
NEW YORK, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Since the first U.S. Ebola diagnosis in Dallas last month, demand for hazardous materials suits and face masks has surged, creating a boon for companies that manufacture and sell the protective equipment amid heightened fears the deadly outbreak will spread.
The companies range from well-established medical supply manufacturers to little-known businesses that produce hazmat suits used in West Africa and now U.S. hospitals.
According to company executives interviewed by Reuters, much of the demand has come from governmental and international agencies since the outbreak began in March.
After Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, and later died, U.S. hospitals rapidly increased orders for protective equipment. A nurse's aide in Spain also became infected after caring for a patient there.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that three million protective suits will be needed to control the Ebola outbreak worldwide, to ensure healthcare workers and others do not come into contact with infectious bodily fluids such as blood or sweat.
The virus so far has killed more than 4,400 people, nearly all in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Without additional intervention or changes in community behavior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there could be up to 1.4 million Ebola cases in West Africa by January 2015.
DuPont, a producer of protective suits being used in both West Africa and the United States, said it has more than tripled its production since the start of the outbreak in March.
Kimberly-Clark, which makes protective disposable medical equipment for healthcare workers, said it has seen a 20 to 30 percent rise in demand compared with the same time period last year. And Medline, a manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies, has reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales of face masks, eyewear and shields and a more than 25 percent rise in protective apparel sales in the past 30 days.
"Once the first case (in the United States) was diagnosed, we saw an increase in calls" with more than 150 new inquiries a day, said Stephanie Pasko Nelson, vice president of marketing for Medline's preventive care division.
Duncan died last week at a Dallas hospital. A nurse caring for him became infected with the virus, and local health officials are investigating how she was exposed while wearing recommended protective gear.
Ebola has "definitely increased awareness, attention and inquiries coming through" more than previous pandemics, such as SARS and H1N1 swine flu, Pasko Nelson said.
Expectations of greater demand for their products have pushed stocks in hazmat suit producer Lakeland Industries and protective face mask company Alpha Pro Tech more than 120 percent higher last week. Both companies declined to comment.
DuPont, the largest of the companies affected, saw its stock jump more than 10 percent from mid-September to Sept. 30 as it multiplied its production due to a more robust international response to the crisis and the U.S. diagnosis. Kimberly Clark's shares rose 1 percent from Sept. 30 to Oct. 10.
When Duncan first arrived at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital with Ebola-like symptoms, he told health workers he had recently traveled from Liberia. But it took the hospital two days to admit him and diagnose him with Ebola, by which point his condition had deteriorated considerably.
Health authorities are monitoring more than 100 people who had direct or indirect contact with Duncan for signs of illness. Nurse Nina Pham's contraction of the disease has contributed to the spike in protective gear requests.
"We simply are reacting and following things as they happen," said Judson Boothe, Kimberly-Clark's senior global manufacturing director for surgical and infection prevention. "We have reactions in place when we see demand starting to build."
Kimberly-Clark and its peers already had plans to increase production capacity ahead of the flu season, including stocking up on materials and hiring more employees.
They also have collaborated with health organizations aiding in the international response to help meet the uptick in demand.
DuPont has been working with the WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières, the leading organization fighting the worst Ebola outbreak on record, to provide enough personal protective equipment.
Though it has seen a steady rise in demand since the start of the outbreak in March, DuPont said it has seen a "significant increase" as the disease spread to the United States and Europe.
"We anticipate awareness to continue," Pasko Nelson said. "We're prepared." (Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Ken Wills)