The number of health professionals who have been pierced by needles at work has doubled in the last 10 years, leaving medical staff vulnerable to viruses transmitted through blood.
In 2011, 541 incidents of needle stick injuries which exposed staff to blood-borne viruses were recorded, compared to 271 in 2002. And it is likely that the figures are much smaller than the real number of incidents in which health workers were injured by needles while doing their jobs.
The statistics were made public by the Health Protection Agency, which records incidents of healthcare staff being exposed to blood-borne viruses in its Eye of the Needle report.
In the last five years there have been 2,039 cases of staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland being put at risk of contracting blood-borne viruses after needlestick injuries involving patients known to carry this type of disease.
The majority of the recorded incidents happened while staff were working on wards, in intensive care, accident and emergency or in the operating theatre. And the report claimed that most of the injuries could have been prevented through better practices like disposing of clinical waste properly and handling sharps safely.
In the three years from 2008 to 2011 five members of medical staff caught hepatitis C from patients. Three of the incidents occurred in England while the remaining two were in Scotland.
However there has not been a case of a healthcare worker becoming infected with HIV at work since 1999.
The HPA’s expert in blood-borne viruses, Dr Fortune Ncube, said the incidents in which staff had become infected with hepatitis C served as a warning to staff that needle stick injuries at work could lead to them catching a serious blood-borne virus.
He said it was worrying that staff working in healthcare settings were still in danger of becoming seriously ill due to incidents which were mainly preventable. He said the HPA was following an EU directive due to come into force in May next year by urging healthcare services to replace conventional devices with safer alternatives.
He added that the report highlighted the need for staff to be given more training in how to avoid needle stick injuries and that where employees are hurt in this way they should be given immediate support by occupational health services.