Healthcare Workers Face National Crisis

A meeting today of the Frontline Healthcare Workers Safety Foundation addresses the issues surrounding worker exposure to hepatitis C, early diagnosis and treatment.

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For the first time, Diane Mawyer, R.N., is telling the traumatic story of her exposure to hepatitis C (HCV) through a needlestick injury on the job, at a meeting today of the Frontline Healthcare Workers Safety Foundation.

The "Partners in Prevention" meeting brings together a multi-disciplinary panel of leaders from the National Institute of Health (NIH), OSHA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Veterans Administration (VA) and nursing and medical professional societies to address the issues surrounding HCV, early diagnosis, and treatment of exposed workers.

Mawyer knows those issues first hand. She has been fighting for her life through three organ transplants after being exposed to HCV 20 years ago.

"When I was exposed, very little was known about HCV and the risks associated with needlestick injuries and exposure to bloodborne pathogens," said Mawyer. "But with our growing understanding of HCV, it is crucial that we be proactive in screening and diagnosis. If my hepatitis C had been identified earlier, there''s a good chance that my organ transplants could have been avoided."

According to OSHA, 600,000 needlestick injuries occur in U.S. hospitals every year, not including injuries to emergency medical workers, firefighters and other public safety professionals.

Hepatitis C, a chronic disease caused by a bloodborne pathogen, is responsible for at least 30 to 50 percent of liver cancer cases in the United States.

While not everyone who experiences a needlestick injury will develop HCV, healthcare workers are among the highest groups for new infections.

The risk of occupational transmission of HCV is 40 to 50 percent higher than the risk of occupational transmission of HIV, yet unlike HIV, there are no federal health regulations requiring screening , early intervention therapy, or post exposure treatment, according to the Frontline Healthcare Workers Safety Foundation.

"Healthcare workers like Diane Mawyer are on the front lines everyday looking out for our health and safety, and we need to do more to protect them," said Dr. Murray Cohen, CIH, chairman of the Frontline Healthcare Workers Safety Foundation. "By addressing the need for appropriate prevention measures, disease screening and post-exposure therapy guidelines at this conference, we hope to urge government, private employers and benefit providers to take action to protect workers from the effects of HCV."

The Cost of Undiagnosed Hepatitis C

The Frontline Healthcare Workers Safety Foundation said without rigorous hepatitis C (HCV) screening and therapy requirements for healthcare workers, those at highest risk often go undiagnosed and untreated until the virus causes liver damage, which can be fatal unless the patient receives a liver transplant.

A recent cost-benefit analysis conducted by the healthcare actuarial and consulting firm Milliman & Roberston, shows that every dollar spent on curative hepatitis C treatment now can result in about $4 of medical costs savings to employers, benefit funds, and taxpayers in the future.

These savings not only mean dollars saved, but the prevention of HCV virus complications and surgeries.

"Aggressive treatment of HCV -- the earlier the better -- will benefit the patient, as well as help reduce the long-term cost associated with chronic liver disease," said Dr. John Wong, chief of the division of Clinical Decision Making at the New England Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine.

Approximately $15 billion is being spent today by the U.S. healthcare system to care for those with HCV. By the year 2021, it is estimated that HCV costs will peak at an estimate $26 billion.

"If left undiagnosed and allowed to progress to chronic liver disease, HCV not only poses serious, life-threatening health problems, but the emerging economic crisis for all infected workers, their employers, benefit providers and workers'' compensation carriers," said Dr. Murray Cohen, CIH, chairman of the Frontline Healthcare Workers System Foundation. "The value of prevention is skyrocketing."

HCV is spread through contact with infected blood. Blood transfusions that were administered before accurate blood-screening tests became available in 1992 are known to have been a major hepatitis C risk factor.

Others at high risk are healthcare workers, firefighters, veterans and drug users.

Unlike hepatitis A and B, hepatitis C has no vaccine -- nor is there one on the horizon.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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