The Government is undertaking a consultation to gauge views around relaxing the restrictions placed on the work that can be undertaken by HIV-positive healthcare workers.
The move was unveiled by Chief Medical Officer for England Dame Sally Davies in December 2011, following a review by the Expert Advisory Group on AIDS, the UK Advisory Panel of Healthcare Workers Infected with Blood-borne Viruses and the Advisory Group on Hepatitis.
The organisations found that there have been no reported transmissions of HIV from healthcare workers, even though there have been investigations involving 10,000 patients who were tested for HIV. They also found that few other countries have such tight restrictions as those in the UK.
The government consultation will run until 9 March 2012.
Under the current system, healthcare workers diagnosed with HIV are not allowed to perform most surgical or dental procedures. These restrictions will remain in place until the outcome of the consultation is decided, said the Department of Health.
The expert advisory groups concluded that the risk of HIV transmission from a healthcare worker who is undiagnosed and untreated is extremely low for the most invasive procedures such as open cardiac surgery. It was negligible from the least invasive procedures such as a local anaesthetic injection in dentistry.
Davies said: “There are currently around 110 healthcare workers with HIV [in England] who might be affected by the current restrictions. We need to ensure that the guidelines and restrictions imposed are evidence-based and achieve a fair balance between patient safety and the rights and responsibilities of healthcare workers with HIV.”
The Department of Health added that the annual risk to the general population of being struck and killed by lightning, about one in 10 million, is of the same order of magnitude of risk as a patient being infected with HIV from an infected healthcare worker during the most invasive type of exposure-prone procedure.
In a separate development, health watchdog the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has called for “universal testing” for HIV as it has concluded that more than 21,000 people are unaware they have the infection. The number of people living with HIV in the UK reached an estimated 91,500 in 2010, it added in a report.
The HPA said it was concerned that more than half of those diagnosed in 2010 came forward for testing after the point at which treatment for their infection should ideally have begun, as late diagnosis is associated with an increased risk of AIDS and death.
It has therefore recommended that in areas where prevalence of HIV is high there should be universal testing for the infection in all new GP registrants and patients admitted to hospital so as to reduce late diagnosis.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has published new guidance on the prevention of sharps injuries in the healthcare sector.
The “Sharps safety” guidance is designed to support implementation of the European Union’s Directive 2010/32/EU.
It covers the latest law on sharps injuries, implementing the Directive and supporting Regulations, and the actions employers, nurses, healthcare workers and safety representatives should all be taking.