Avoiding Risk: Bloodborne Pathogens in the Healthcare Community

Working in the healthcare community has its risks, one being the exposure to bloodborne pathogens.  Bloodborne pathogens are microorganisms in human blood that can cause disease in humans.  These pathogens include, but are not limited to, hepatitis B (HBV), hepatitis C (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).  These are serious infections with even more serious repercussions, often leading to chronic disability and a lifetime of struggles.  However, they can be avoided when treated with caution.


A common way that first aid team members, nurses, and other healthcare personnel are exposed to these diseases, is through their work with and around sharps.  Needle-sticks and other sharps-related injuries put these workers at a higher risk for infection and make it necessary for strict implementation of rules and regulations.  These injuries are so common, that the Center for Disease Control and Preventions estimates more than half of nurses will experience at least one needle-stick during his/her career. A more striking statistic says that among phlebotomists, 22% of sharps injuries occurred during or after disposal—often resulting from over-filled sharps containers; that is why the CDC recommends containers be replaced when they are 2/3 to ¾ full. Either way, to avoid these risks, it is important to maintain caution and exercise the correct procedures when working with sharps and in environments where blood is present.


According to the CDC, the estimated risk of being infected with HIV is 0.3 percent.  There have been 57 documented cases of HIV transmissions to U.S. healthcare workers in the last thirty years, but there are many possibilities of cases gone unreported.  Of these 57, 48 were associated with puncture injury by sharps.


HBV infection is a bit more common than HIV infection.  Statistics from a 2001 survey show that approximately 400 healthcare workers became infected that year.  This number sounds like a lot, but it actually shows a 95% decline from the estimated 17,000 new infections in 1983.  This decline was largely in part of widespread immunization, but also the ever-evolving rules and regulations put in place by OSHA.


When it comes to HCV infection among healthcare workers, the infection rate is very similar to that of the general population, around 1-2%.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that the average risk of infection after a sharps incident is approximately 1.8%.  That being said, of the total HCV infections, which range from 100,000 in 1991 to 36,000 in 1996, only 2-4% have been healthcare workers exposed to blood in the workplace.

Although some of these numbers may seem small, the risks should not be taken lightly.  A single outbreak has great potential, often affecting thousands of people.  For example, just 35 outbreaks have resulted in the notification of more than 100,000 people who then required testing for hepatitis.  Also, HBV, HCV, and HIV are not the only potential diseases.  There have been more than 20 types of bloodborne pathogens identified as having been transmitted by sharps-related exposures.