Hospitals around the country are facing a shortage of latex rubber gloves used to protect health care workers from possible exposure to AIDS.
Glove makers have been unable to meet the demand, which has surged dramatically in recent months as hospital support staff, emergency medical workers, police and dental hygienists have months as hospital support staff, emergency medical workers, police and dental hygienists have begun wearing gloves for protection from the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus.
Both of the country's major manufacturers of gloves are building facilities to meet the demand, but it will be next summer before those are ready. In the meantime, factories that have been working at full capacity have back orders of up to six months. "Until those extra units come on line, there's a fixed amount of supply for an increasing amount of demand," said Les Jacobsen, a spokesman for Baxter Travenol Laboratories Inc., one of the country's largest medical suppliers.
"It's a major problem," said Dave Tomkins, distribution center manager at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, where use of the gloves has tripled since last year. "The manufacturers and the medical suppliers just can't keep up. We get a weekly allotment of 30 cases, which last only about 3 or 4 days. We need twice that many."
In the face of shortages, many hospitals are using inferior and marginally less expensive vinyl gloves, or sterile latex surgical gloves. So far supplies of the surgical gloves which, at about $35 per hundred, cost three times more than nonsterile examination gloves, have held out, but there is concern that that market may soon face shortages as well.
Safety has also become an issue as many hospital officials and medical distributors report that some manufacturers, particularly those in the Far East, are rushing to fill U.S. demand with inferior merchandise.
"With factories running 24 hours a day, quality has dropped dramatically," said Ken Simms, chairman of Interpro Inc., a medical products import-export business in New Jersey. "Someone called me the other day with a case of gloves from Malaysia that had little pinholes all over them."
"We've also experienced what we see as a cheapening of the product," said Richard O'Brien, director of purchasing for Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "I think manufacturers are stretching their production by putting less latex in each glove. We've had many more people breaking through their gloves."
The increasing use of protective measures follows recent recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control that medical workers take extra precautions when dealing with blood and bodily fluids, including, where appropriate, the use of protective gowns, gloves and masks. The recommendations have been heeded by many health care workers who did not formerly take such precautions. The industry estimates, for example, that 8,000 dental hygienists each use about 10 pairs of latex gloves per day. Two years ago those measures were rare.
"AIDS has reawakened people to the need for proper antiseptic techniques," said Parker Lee, vice president of the medical products division of one of the country's largest glove manufacturers, Ansell Inc.
Panic buying is to blame for the most recent surge in demand, according to some medical distributors. Worried about access to future supplies, some hospitals are apparently trying to stockpile gloves.
"It's just out of sight," Simms said. "Last week alone I got orders for 120 million pairs of gloves. Just yesterday I got another 40 million. Price is no longer an issue. Supply is."
Medical wholesalers also charge that manufacturers of the gloves, many of whom are based in the Far East where latex rubber is produced, are exploiting the glove shortage.
"There isn't anyone I know who hasn't had a contract broken," one importer said. By some accounts, Taiwanese and Malaysian manufacturers are breaking prior agreements and simply auctioning off their products to the highest bidder.
Other distributors say that manufacturers are deliberately stalling on delivery in an attempt to drive up prices. For whatever reason, distributors have suddenly found their usual sources of gloves drying up. "It's terrible. It's an industrywide problem," said Bob Lucas, president of OR Medical Supplier in Rockville. "We've called every manufacturer out there and they're laughing at us. They won't even take our order."
Some parts of the country -- particularly New York and San Francisco -- have been hit harder by the shortage. Small hospitals without the market leverage of larger institutions have run into the greatest difficulties in obtaining gloves.
But health officials in the Washington area say the problem has yet to reach critical proportions.
"There's no place in the hospital where if a health care worker wants a pair of gloves, they can't get them," said Molly Kalifut, a spokesman for Anne Arundel General Hospital in Annapolis. "We've got at least a week's supply of them, and in some cases a month's."
At Washington Hospital Center, officials reported a shortage but not a crisis. "We're tightening the supply," says a hospital spokesman. "We're working on educating our employes on appropriate use of the gloves."
Officials at George Washington University Hospital declined to comment on the shortage. Another local hospital, D.C. General, reported no difficulty in obtaining gloves.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, expect demand to double within the next three or four years, as more people outside the health care community begin to take precautions against the spread of AIDS.
"People are beginning to use gloves for all kinds of bizarre reasons," says John Gannett, vice president of marketing for Buffalo Medical Products, a small Florida-based glove maker. "I know the Houston Police Department has boxes of our gloves in their cars. No one wants to touch anyone anymore."