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Understanding Bloodborne Pathogens

 

by Dr. Mary Williams, R.N. D.C.

 

Bloodborne Pathogens: What are they?

Bloodborne pathogens, infectious microorganisms, are found in human blood that can lead to disease in humans. These microorganisms include but are not limited to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV).

Hepatitis B, caused by the hepatitis B virus, is a liver disease formerly called "serum hepatitis," is a life-threatening bloodborne pathogen and serious risk to employees exposed to blood and other bodily fluids. Hepatitis, meaning "inflammation of the liver," can be caused by many factors including drugs, toxins, infectious agents and viruses and autoimmune disease, to name a few.

Hepatitis C, a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus, is known as the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the United States. Hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted through repeated direct exposures to blood. Most chronically-infected people are unaware of their infection because they are not showing symptoms of clinical illness. As of now, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Needlesticks (being pricked with a needle) may potentially expose workers to bloodborne pathogens. Workers in many professions, including first aid personnel, housekeeping employees, nurses and other healthcare personnel, and teachers and educators may be at risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens.

Diseases that are not typically transmitted directly by blood contact, but instead by insect or other vector, are more commonly classified as vector-borne disease, despite the causative agent can be found in the blood. Vector-borne diseases include both West Nile virus and malaria.

Many bloodborne diseases can be transmitted by means other than needlesticks, including intravenous drug use and high-risk sexual behavior by way of the transfer of infected bodily fluids.

As it is difficult to determine what pathogens are within any given blood sample, and since some bloodborne diseases are lethal, the universal precautions rule regarding blood and any bodily fluid states, "treat all human blood, bodily fluids, and other potentially infectious materials as if they are infectious." Blood and body fluid precautions are an infection control practice that tries to minimize this type of disease transmission.

Controlling Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens

To reduce or eliminate the dangers of occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens, an employer must put into effect an exposure control plan with protection measures. The plan should describe how a workplace or employer will ensure proper training, medical training, vaccinations when availaible, appropriate labels for hazardous materials, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Personal protective equipment includes the use of any or all of the following: shoe covers, gown, hairnet, safety mask and face shield, gloves, absorbable pads, and red biohazard bags for hazardous materials. For a person to protect themselves it is essential to have a barrier between them and the potentially infectious material.

Standard precautions that should be taken when providing care should include:

  • Avoiding contact with blood and other bodily fluids

  • Properly using personal protective equipment like disposable gloves, eye protection, foot coverings, gowns and breathing barriers

  • Disposing of sharps in designated sharps containers

  • Making use of safer equipment like self-sheathing needles, needle-less syringes or engineered sharps to lessen the risk of needlesticks

  • Carefully cleaning and disinfecting all potentially contaminated work surfaces and equipment after each use

  • Being careful to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth while or after providing care or when exposure to potentially infectious materials is possible.

If an exposure incident does occur, it is important to immediately clean and sanitize the area of contact, write down what happened, and notify proper personnel before seeking immediate medical attention.

For more information on bloodborne pathogens and how to limit exposure, consider the following resources:

Bloodborne Pathogens: Questions and Answers about Occupational Exposure (PDF)

Bloodborne Pathogens Certification

Bloodborne Pathogens and Needlestick Prevention

Introduction to Bloodborne Pathogens

Bloodborne Pathogens (PDF)

Bloodborne Pathogens Training Self Study Guide (PDF)

Bloodborne Pathogens Retraining

Protecting Yourself from Bloodborne Pathogens

Bloodborne Pathogens (video)

OSU Bloodborne Pathogen Awareness Training

Bloodborne Pathogen Information for Child Care Providers