August 21, 2006
Hundreds of Canadian health care workers may have contracted HIV on the job, "greatly" exceeding government estimates, according to a University of Western Ontario report presented at the 16th International AIDS Conference. The Public Health Agency has records of just three HIV-positive health care workers, an agency spokesperson said.
"The main importance of this study is basically that there is a large underestimate of occupationally acquired HIV infection," said Gillian McCarthy, the lead researcher and an epidemiology professor at the university's school of dentistry. She speculated that workers exposed to HIV on the job did not report the exposures, fearing their licensing boards' reactions if they later test HIV-positive.
Most occupational HIV infections can be prevented in the first place with good infection-control practices, McCarthy said, but protective measures are often ignored. There are almost no data on how many health care workers may have HIV, said McCarthy. She presented results from a confidential mail-in survey of 22,000 dentists, dental hygienists, surgeons and nurses conducted over several years.
Among nurses, more than 8 percent said they had been exposed to a patient's HIV-contaminated blood, either through a cut, needle stick or blood splashing into their eyes, nose or mouth. Close to 1 percent of surgeons, and about 0.5 percent of dental hygienists and dentists, respectively, reported they had been exposed to HIV within the previous year. The chance of infection from such exposures is 0.3 percent, previous research suggests.