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PHE report: Healthcare workers still at risk from needles

December 16, 2014

People working in the healthcare sector are aware of the dangers of needlestick injuries, and how they can contribute to the proliferation of blood borne pathogens leading to HIV, hepatitis and other illnesses.

A new report from Public Health England (PHE) highlights the importance of reducing occupational sharps injuries, as it is putting medical professionals at a significant risk of being exposed to viruses.

According to figures reported to PHE, there were 373 occupational exposures to a bloodborne virus (BBV) reported in 2004, which significantly increased to 496 in 2013. This is worrying for many in the profession as, since 2004, there has been EU legislation passed and implemented in an attempt to reduce the number of workers suffering percutaneous injuries.

In its new Eye of the Needle report, the body found that across this ten-year period around 30 per cent of exposures involved a source patient infected with HIV, while more than half (54 per cent) concerned hepatitis C (HCV) and nine per cent, hepatitis B (HBV). 

The report suggested that doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants were the workers at the highest risk with 81 per cent of the injuries suffering being someone in one of these roles. However, this could be down to the professionals who are most likely to report an incident, with underreporting still being a significant issue for many hospitals. It also revealed that nearly two-thirds of needlestick injuries occurred during clinical procedures.

One positive outcome of the report is that HBV-immunisation programmes seem to be serving their function, with no new cases of hepatitis B being reported among healthcare workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, the report stated that 97 per cent of healthcare workers exposed to HIV who commenced post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) did so within 72 hours of exposure, and no HIV infections to healthcare workers have been reported.

Dr Fortune Ncube, head of the BBV Department at PHE, said: “It is a disappointment that we still continue to see injuries to healthcare workers occurring after the procedure, in the period prior to and during disposal. These injuries are entirely preventable.

“Despite this, we are encouraged that there have been no new HIV infections in healthcare workers and that the immunisation programme for HBV is effective in preventing HBV infections in healthcare workers.”

The report stressed the importance of safety devices, but also ensuring that all healthcare workers have appropriate and regular training on how to use these instruments, during the procedure and when disposing of it.

Jill Holmes, infection prevention control nurse specialist and Control Society representative on the Safer Needles Network, said: “Safety-engineered devices are not fool proof. Unless they are used correctly, these devices will not be effective or prevent sharps injuries. It is vital that healthcare providers train new and existing staff in their correct use.”

She added that it is also essential that staff remember the importance of basic sharps safety, which involves disposing and using sharps safely.

"Safe use and handling of sharps must be embedded into everyday practice."

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