Purpose: To estimate (1) the prevalence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in emergency department (ED) patients, (2) the frequency of blood contact (BC) in ED workers (EDWs), (3) the efficacy of gloves in preventing BC, and (4) the risk of HIV infection in EDWs due to BC.
Patients and methods: We conducted an 8-month study in three pairs of inner-city and suburban hospital EDs in high AIDS incidence areas in the United States. At each hospital, blood specimens from approximately 3,400 ED patients were tested for HIV antibody. Observers monitored BC and glove use by EDWs.
Results: HIV seroprevalence was 4.1 to 8.9 per 100 patient visits in the 3 inner-city EDs, 6.1 in 1 suburban ED, and 0.2 and 0.7 in the other 2 suburban EDs. The HIV infection status of 69% of the infected patients was unknown to ED staff. Seroprevalence rates were highest among patients aged 15 to 44 years, males, blacks and Hispanics, and patients with pneumonia. BC was observed in 379 (3.9%) of 9,793 procedures; 362 (95%) of the BCs were on skin, 11 (3%) were on mucous membranes, and 6 (2%) were percutaneous. Overall procedure-adjusted skin BC rates were 11.2 BCs per 100 procedures for ungloved workers and 1.3 for gloved EDWs (relative risk = 8.8; 95% confidence interval = 7.3 to 10.3). In the high HIV seroprevalence EDs studied, 1 in every 40 full-time ED physicians or nurses can expect an HIV-positive percutaneous BC annually; in the low HIV seroprevalence EDs studied, 1 in every 575. The annual occupational risk of HIV infection for an individual ED physician or nurse from performing procedures observed in this study is estimated as 0.008% to 0.026% (1 in 13,100 to 1 in 3,800) in a high HIV seroprevalence area and 0.0005% to 0.002% (1 in 187,000 to 1 in 55,000) in a low HIV seroprevalence area.
Conclusions: In both inner-city and suburban EDs, patient HIV seroprevalence varies with patient demographics and clinical presentation; the infection status of most HIV-positive patients is unknown to ED staff. The risk to an EDW of occupationally acquiring HIV infection varies by ED location and the nature and frequency of BC; this risk can be reduced by adherence to universal precautions.