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How Virtual Reality Could Help Stop the Next Ebola Outbreak

People pass a banner reading 'STOP EBOLA' forming part of Sierra Leone's Ebola free campaign in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016.

People pass a banner reading 'STOP EBOLA' forming part of Sierra Leone's Ebola free campaign in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. // Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/AP

The federal government thinks virtual-reality-based training and simulation are the keys to minimizing the next outbreak of a deadly infectious disease. 

The Health and Human Services Department is looking for a contractor to provide that immersive training to federal medical personnel; it wants that same vendor to furnish a quarantine facility for patients who were exposed to Ebola, or other "highly pathogenic disease," according to a solicitation posted on FedBizOpps. 

"Virtual reality" refers to technology meant to immerse a viewer in a simulated and interactive environment, often explored while wearing a headset.

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The contract would include training curricula that would be used in a simulated or virtual reality environment—ideally, it would "teach seamless continuity of care and treatment from a person potentially infected with Ebola, through quarantine, isolation, treatment, to ultimate outcome,” the posting said.

Eligible vendors might include hospitals that have already treated Ebola patients, according to HHS.

Though the contractor would be responsible for building the training facility, federal response teams such as the Public Health Service and the National Disaster Medical System must "in all cases" get priority access to it during an outbreak of Ebola or other diseases.

Earlier this summer, a group of virtual reality advocates came to the Capitol to urge lawmakers to examine potential uses for virtual reality in government, especially for education and professional training purposes.

Other agencies have been exploring the technology; the Food Safety and Inspection Service is developing simulations that could expose a potential inspector to what a slaughterhouse really looks like, Chief Technology Officer Jim Tunnessen said during an event in Washington last month. Before they've seen the real thing, food inspectors for slaughterhouses or meatpacking plants "may not know exactly what you're getting yourself into when you're initially applying," he said.

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