Healthcare workers put at risk of blood-borne viruses

Healthcare workers are still being put at risk of contracting blood-borne viruses through sharps and needle-stick injuries, despite a significant number being preventable, a damning report by the gov­ernment’s health watchdog has ­concluded.

The Eye of the Needle bi-annual report by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) found that there were 914 incidents where healthcare workers were put at risk between 2006 and 2007. Four healthcare workers were reported as having acquired hepatitis C as a result of their injuries.

Between 2000 and 2007 nearly half (48%) of the occupational exposures involved nursing professionals, the report said.

For the first time, too, the 2007 figures showed medical and dental professionals reporting a higher proportion of significant occupational exposures to blood-borne viruses than nursing staff.

Despite many high-profile awareness-raising campaigns, there was still significant under-reporting of the issue, with nurses and other healthcare workers too often believing the risk of injuries just goes with the job. Some healthcare workers injured at work with sharps or needles were still seeking appropriate tests and follow-up checks for hepatitis C, it warned.

Professor Mike Catchpole, director of the HPA’s Centre for Infections, said: “Although the numbers of reported healthcare workers infected with hepatitis C following their injury were few, these cases should never have occurred. We all need to do everything we can to prevent occupational exposure injuries occurring. Many incidents can be prevented if there is proper adherence to standard precautions for the safe handling and disposal of clinical waste.”

But, apart from testing and follow-up for hepatitis C, there were signs of some improvement in practices around the implementation of national policies in the management of exposure incidents.

The HPA found guidelines on the use of HIV post-exposure prophylaxis were generally being adhered to. Other than five HIV seroconversions reported up to 1999, no new cases of HIV had occurred in the UK among healthcare workers through occupational exposure, although injuries involving HIV-­infected patients represented 22% of occupational exposures through sharps between 2000 and 2007.

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