June 8, 1998

3 Min Read
The needle-stick epidemic

The International Health Care Worker Safety Center (University of Virginia) estimates more than 1 million accidental needle sticks occur per year. Higher rates have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and medical journals.

Although nearly invisible to the public, this epidemic of accidental needle sticks is infecting thousands of American medical workers with potentially lethal diseases. It has reached a crisis stage, as each day medical workers suffer some 2,400 accidental sticks.

Most of those sticks could be prevented with safety needles. Yet only 5 to 10% of the syringes used by medical workers have the safety features ordered six years ago by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), OSHA says. The Centers for Disease Control believe safety needles could cut accidental needle sticks by 76%.

Here's a look at how a needle stick can cause infection, and three major diseases transmitted through needle sticks. Information has been culled from an April 1998 report by the San Francisco Chronicle:

HIV (also known as the AIDS virus)

- Affected: Up to 60 healthcare workers a year contract the virus from needle sticks, according to the International Health Care Worker Safety Center.

- Effects: The virus attacks the immune system, allowing development of diseases such as pneumonia and cancer.

- Prevention: The virus has been considered fatal. However, new drugs have allowed many people infected to live with the virus. There is no vaccine to prevent infection.

Hepatitis B

- Affected: Up to 12,000 workers every year were contracting the virus in the 1980s say the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and medical researchers. As many as 300 of those died from it each year say the organizations. Cases have fallen to 1,000 per year according to the CDC and OSHA, following widespread availability of a vaccine.

- Effects: It attacks the liver, causing jaundice, fatigue, abdominal and joint pain, fever, and rashes. Chronic hepatitus can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, coma, and death.

- Prevention: A three-shot vaccine has been extremely effective in preventing the infection.

Hepatitis C

- Affected: The virus infects at least 1,000 healthcare workers per year; however, because cases have been poorly documented, the actual number may be significantly higher. Most experts estimate the numbers to be in the thousands each year.

- Effects: Its symptoms are similar to those of Hepatitis B, but Hepatitis C is far more serious with much higher incidences of fatal liver disease reported.

- Prevention: No vaccine exists to prevent the infection.

- More than 20 other infections can also be transmitted through needle sticks, including: Syphillis, malaria, tuberculosis, streptoccal and staphyloccal sepsis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, herpes, hepatitis D and G, babesiosis, brucellosis, leptospirosis, arboviral infections, relapsing fever, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, human T-lymphotropic virus Type 1, and viral fevers caused by Ebola.

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