Pubdate: Tue 24 Feb 1998 A1 / Front
Source: Vancouver Sun (Canada)
Author: Pamela Fayerman, Sun Health Issues Reporter


About 500 health and safety workers had to be placed on anti-HIV/AIDS drug
regimens as a precaution last year after being jabbed by used needles.

At St. Paul's Hospital alone, there were 80 needlestick injuries in 1997
among hospital employees, 25 of which involved patients who were HIV

There has been only one case in B.C. of a health-care worker contracting
HIV from a patient through a needlestick injury, according to Dr. David
Patrick, an associate director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. The
unidentified worker, who has not yet developed AIDS, was infected a few
years ago at St. Paul's, he said.

But the alarming rate at which health-care workers, police officers,
firefighters, and ambulance attendants find themselves stuck by dirty
needles has prompted some Lower Mainland hospitals to try out a new safety

Nurses at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster got trained Monday in
the use of the new syringes, which allow the user to sheath the needle as
it is withdrawn from the patient.

Needlestick injuries occur in a variety of ways -- housekeeping workers can
get pricked after nurses fail to either cap conventional needles or nurses
may forget to immediately dispose of used syringes in a ``sharps'' bucket.

Police officers doing searches of suspects have also been pricked.

Last year, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul's
Hospital distributed 500 antiretroviral drug cocktail regimens for
community workers pricked by used needles.

Occupational health and safety coordinator Nancy McMillan said hospital
employees have been educated to seek help within two hours of getting poked.

``We treat everything as a high-risk incident, even though it raises the
anxiety level,'' she said.

Both patient and the susceptible health-care worker are tested for HIV and
Hepatitis A, B and C status at the time of the incident.

While waiting for the bloodwork to come back from the laboratory,
health-care workers are put on HIV/AIDS drug cocktails. If the tests come
back negative, the drug cocktails are abandoned after a few days.

If they are positive, the workers remain on the treatment for a month,
enduring the fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite that are common side

Followup testing continues periodically for a year on the affected workers.
HIV/AIDS expert Dr. Martin Schechter said people who go on the newest
antiretroviral drugs very quickly after exposure reduce their risk of
acquiring HIV by up to 80 per cent.

Maureen Carignan, equipment and supplies manager for the Simon Fraser
Health Region, said while no one at Royal Columbian Hospital has contracted
HIV from a patient there through needlestick injury, workers are
justifiably concerned.

At about $1 each, the new safety syringes are normally almost 10 times more
expensive than conventional syringes, but the region was able to negotiate
a lower price, Carignan said.

Vancouver Hospital and St. Paul's will convert to the new syringes if the
money can be found in their budgets for the next fiscal year.

Carole Taylor, manager of employee health and safety at Vancouver Hospital,
said there were 209 cases of needlestick injuries among workers last year
and a study showed the new needle system would prevent 18 per cent of
high-risk injuries.

Education programs reminding workers about safe practices is considered an
even greater hedge against injury.

Judith McGuire, head of the needle exchange program on the Downtown
Eastside, said the safety syringes are perfect for hospitals, but wouldn't
hold much appeal for drug addicts.

``The theory of using a syringe once, then locking it so it can't be shared
sounds great, but the reality with drug addicts is that they use their
syringes three to four times before getting them exchanged with new ones.
Since they are used only once, it would be virtually impossible to
distribute enough,'' she said, referring to the fact that the needle
exchange already distributes 2.5 million syringes each year.

McGuire said two needle exchange workers got pricked by accident last year,
but they went on the prophylactic drug treatment and neither has contracted

Sandra Buckler, public relations manager for the Workers' Compensation
Board, said an information booklet on how to prevent blood-borne diseases
through needlestick injuries is being produced.