Analysis Shows Hepatitis C Infection Rate is Higher for Healthcare Workers

Healthcare workers have a much higher prevalence of chronic hepatitis C infection compared to the general population, according to a recently published study.

Healthcare workers have a much higher prevalence of chronic hepatitis C infection compared to the general population, according to a recently published study.

Researchers looked systematically at data from 1989 to 2014 and conducted a meta-analysis of 44 studies on hepatitis C in healthcare workers versus a control group of the general population. Results were published in October in the Online First section of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

The prevalence of infection among healthcare workers was found to be significantly higher than in the general population, according to lead author Claudia Westermann from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, in Hamburg, Germany. The highest was among medical and laboratory staff.

A pooled analysis of high and moderate quality observational studies revealed a statistically significant increase in odds ratio of 1.6 for hepatitis C virus infection among healthcare workers compared to population-based controls, explained Westermann in an email. “This means that according to our data, compared to the general population, healthcare workers had 60 percent greater odds of getting hepatitis C,” she said.

One of the limitations of the analysis was that the population based controls were mostly blood donors and it was unlikely that people in the general population at risk for the virus were included, according to the article. The studies also lacked consistent recording of personal risk factors for hepatitis C infection.

The authors note that healthcare workers come into contact with body fluids from infected patients and that the most frequently reported occupational accidents are injuries from sharp or pointed objects. They cite studies that indicate that about 80% of healthcare workers have been affected by needle-stick injuries, many of which are not reported.

Contact with blood from being stuck by a needle continues to be a major threat to healthcare workers. “Exposure to blood cannot completely be avoided when using safe instruments/practices, but they can minimize occupational exposure,” Westermann added.

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus, which the authors note is mainly transmitted by contact with infected blood due to injuries to the skin or mucous membranes. Public health officials estimate that 150 million people across the globe have chronic infection of the virus, which if left unchecked can seriously damage the liver over time.

Because acute infection of the virus is often asymptomatic, the disease is frequently overlooked in its early stages of infection. However, the long-term impact of the virus is significant and is the cause of an estimated 350,000 deaths worldwide each year, note the authors.

“Targeted prevention measures must be based on the epidemiological detection and evaluation of work-related accidents,” the authors state in the article. “Readily accessible reporting and treatment procedures, and the use of safe practices for working with blood, can help to minimize occupational exposure.”

The authors conclude that future studies are needed to shed light on specific activities of healthcare workers as well as their personal risk factors that could relate to infection of the virus.