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HIV and health care workers: What are the risks?

Hospital surgery corridor

Health care workers in Illinois have the unique opportunity to improve the quality of life for people in need on a daily basis. On the other hand, given the nature of their work as caretakers of people carrying a variety of illnesses, health care workers are uniquely exposed to such illnesses, which may include HIV.

HIV is an acronym representing Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is similar to other viruses, such as those that cause the flu or the common cold. The difference between HIV and these better-known viruses is HIV’s permanent nature. HIV stays in the body and destroys important cells that fight disease and infection until possibly progressing to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

Very low incidence rates

Fortunately, given the serious effects of contracting HIV, the risk of exposure is low between HIV and health care workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, less than 60 documented transmissions and nearly 150 possible transmissions of HIV have been reported in the United States.

Another positive observation from the CDC, in addition to the very low aggregated statistics, is the absence of HIV transmissions in recent history. The latest report of a confirmed case of occupational HIV transmission to health care workers was in 1999. It is not clear whether this long run without incident is due to improvements in prevention efforts. It is also possible that cases have been underreported, given that reporting is voluntary.

One of the leading reasons why the incidence rate of HIV transmission cases is so low is the very low risk of infection in the case of exposure. Specifically, the CDC reports a 0.3% probability of health care workers who are exposed to HIV-infected blood in the workplace becoming infected with the virus. In other words, only 3 of every 1,000 untreated exposures to HIV-infected blood will result in infection.

Proper precautions should be taken

Despite the very low probability of infection if exposed to HIV-infected blood, reinforced by the very low incidence rate of HIV transmission to health care workers, every effort to prevent exposure should be taken. The proper use of gloves and goggles and avoidance of exposure to sharp medical devices are among important measures to apply consistently.

If health care workers do become exposed to HIV-infected blood, the CDC recommends immediate treatment involving antiretroviral drugs. This course of action works to counteract forces that could lead to infection.

Illinois workers who are exposed to or infected by this occupational illness should be aware of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Diseases Act, which preserves the right of workers to receive workers’ compensation benefits for workplace-related injuries. They may also wish to consult with a workers’ compensation attorney.

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