HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus – a blood-borne virus that is carried in blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. HIV can cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated, but due to the level of health care and availability of HIV medication in Australia, progression to AIDS is extremely rare.Hospitals follow strict infection prevention and control guidelines to prevent the spread of HIV and other infections to patients, staff and visitors. This includes safe disposal of needles and syringes after single use, decontaminating reusable medical devices after every use, and the use of personal protective equipment such as gloves and eye protection during procedures involving blood and body fluids.
How HIV is spread
HIV can be spread through:
- unprotected (without a condom or other form of barrier protection) anal or vaginal sex with a person who has HIV. Unprotected oral sex is very low risk for the transmission of HIV
- sharing needles, syringes and other injecting equipment with a person who has HIV
- transmission from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth and through breastfeeding, if the mother is HIV positive.
HIV cannot be spread via:
- casual contact such as shaking hands, kissing, hugging or massage
- being washed
- having your dressing changed
- receiving an injection
- toilet seats or bathrooms
- cutlery or crockery
Even if a healthcare worker is HIV positive, there are strict infection prevention and control guidelines that protect you as the patient.
The risk of contracting HIV from blood transfusions is very low
Every unit of donated blood in Australia is laboratory screened for a wide range of blood-borne infections. These tests have included screening for HIV since March 1985.
Testing for HIV involves:
- testing for the presence of HIV antibodies (the body’s response to HIV infection)
- testing for the virus’s genetic material – this is called a nucleic acid test (NAT) and is a more sensitive test to detect the presence of the virus itself.
Thanks to the development of NAT, the ‘window period’ – the time between infection and the detection of the virus in the blood – has been reduced from around 22 days to 11 days. This method is also used to screen donated blood for hepatitis C virus.
Because of these tests, the risk of becoming infected with HIV from a blood transfusion is now extremely rare.
People at risk of HIV infection and some other infectious diseases are excluded from donating blood.
Hospital policies are in place to protect you from HIV and other infectious diseases
To prevent the spread of HIV, strict infection prevention and control guidelines are followed in hospitals. All blood and body fluids from patients are treated as potentially infectious:
- Syringes and needles are ‘single use’ and disposed of in approved sharps containers.
- Reusable medical devices are decontaminated after each patient use.
- Many medical devices are disposed of after single use.
- Healthcare workers wear protective equipment including gowns, gloves and eyewear when carrying out any procedures involving a patient’s blood or body fluids.
- All spilt blood and body fluids are cleaned up according to strict cleaning guidelines.
- Laundry is cleaned according to strict Australian Standards (AS/NZS 4146:2000).
Hospital workers and HIV
Hospital workers can become infected with HIV if they accidentally prick themselves with a needle or other sharp instrument contaminated with HIV. However, only a very small number of hospital workers around the world have become infected with HIV in this way.
Preventative treatment, which may reduce the chance of HIV getting into the bloodstream, is available for healthcare workers who have accidentally pricked themselves with a needle or other sharp instrument contaminated with HIV. The health of healthcare workers in this situation is monitored closely.
Protecting hospital staff from HIV
If a hospital staff member has an accident involving your blood, you may be asked to allow the hospital to test your blood for HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B. Hospitals treat all blood and body fluids as potentially infectious.
By testing your blood, the hospital will know how to manage the health of this staff member. For example, if your blood tested positive for HIV, this could include a recommendation to give post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
PEP is the administration of antiretroviral HIV drugs – ideally commenced within 72 hours of a significant exposure to HIV. PEP has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of HIV infection following occupational exposures to HIV.
Where to get help
- Your Occupational Health and Safety officer or staff health clinic (if you are a healthcare worker)
- Your doctor
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre Tel. (03) 9341 6200 or 1800 032 017 (toll free from outside Melbourne metropolitan area only) or National Relay Service Tel. 1300 555 727 (for callers with a hearing or speech impairment)
- Communicable Disease Prevention and Control, Department of Health and Human Services, Victoria Tel. 1300 651 160
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