October 24, 2008
Concerned about the dangers of possible disease transmission via accidental needlesticks, some first-responders and other health care professionals are working to change a New York state law that requires a patient's written consent prior to HIV testing after such mishaps.
Dr. Michael Dailey, regional emergency medical services director, said no one knows how many needlestick injuries occur or how often a patient's blood may contaminate health care workers' eyes or mucous membranes. He estimates there are two to three exposures per 1,000 hospital beds annually, and one to two exposures for a fire department or ambulance service.
Patients who are able to give their consent rarely refuse to do so, Dailey said, but New York state law does not allow HIV testing if the patient cannot consent due to unconsciousness or death. Thirty-five states have provisions allowing testing after accidental exposure, and testing is automatic in Virginia and Alabama.
Lacking knowledge of the patient's HIV status, many potentially exposed workers opt for an intense, month-long regimen of HIV drugs that often causes debilitating side effects. "Our goal is to make sure we are not giving toxic medicines to people who don't need them, and we are sending health care workers back out into the world knowing they are safe," Dailey said. He added that while legislation to change New York's policy has failed in previous years, he remains hopeful it will pass.