Background: Health care workers are at occupational risk for a vast array of infections that cause substantial illness and occasional deaths. Despite this, few studies have examined the incidence, prevalence, or exposure-associated rates of infection or have considered infection-specific interventions recommended to maintain worker safety.
Objectives: To review all recent reports of occupationally acquired infection in health care workers in order to characterize the type and frequency of infections, the recommended interventions, and the costs of protecting workers. Part I of this two-part review focuses on the historical and ethical aspects of the problem and reviews data on infections caused by specific airborne organisms.
Data sources: A MEDLINE search and examination of infectious disease and infection control journals.
Data selection: All English-language articles and meeting abstracts published between January 1983 and February 1996 related to occupationally acquired infections among health care workers were reviewed. Outbreak- and non-outbreak-associated incidence and prevalence rates were derived, as were costs to prevent, control, and treat infections in health care workers.
Data synthesis: More than 15 airborne infections have been transmitted to health care workers, including tuberculosis, varicella, measles, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus infection. Outbreak-associated attack rates range from 15% to 40%. Most occupational transmission is associated with violation of one or more of three basic principles of infection control: handwashing, vaccination of health care workers, and prompt placement of infectious patients into appropriate isolation.
Conclusions: The risk for occupationally acquired infection is an unavoidable part of daily patient care. Infections that result from airborne transmission of organisms cause substantial illness and occasional deaths among health care workers. Further studies are needed to identify new infection control strategies to 1) improve protection of health care workers and 2) enhance compliance with established approaches. As health care is being reformed, the risk for and cost of occupationally acquired infection must be considered.