Hepatitis C a Greater Threat to Healthcare Workers Than HIV

ATLANTA (Reuters Health) – The risk that healthcare workers will become infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) following an accidental needlestick is 20 to 40 times greater than their risk of HIV infection, according to data presented here at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease. The meeting was sponsored by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Society for Microbiology.

“HIV has driven healthcare safety initiatives for years,” Dr. Robert T. Ball pointed out in an interview with Reuters Health during the meeting. “We need to change our educational focus” to address the risk of exposure to HCV, he said.

Ball, an epidemiologist from the South Carolina Department of Health, polled 66 healthcare facilities in South Carolina, gathering data on HCV and HIV in cases where healthcare workers were exposed to blood or body fluids.

Responses from 53 hospitals (80%) revealed that 1,668 healthcare workers had been exposed to either HCV or HIV in 1998. Of the patients involved, 1,451 had been tested for HCV and 1,508 had been tested for HIV. Overall, 5.2% were infected with HCV and 2.3% were infected with HIV.

These rates are “significantly higher than the general population at 1.5% and 0.3%, respectively,” the researchers note. Because HCV is more prevalent in the general population than HIV, Bell said that it is logical that it is a greater threat to healthcare workers who experience needlesticks, yet the data suggest that HCV is less often tested for after accidental needlesticks than HIV. “We have started a healthcare worker safety unit, as well as a statewide registry and coalition to raise awareness,” Bell said. “It is important that both private and public health providers be made aware of the risk, and above all that all source patient providers be tested for hepatitis C.”

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