Healthcare workers at significantly higher risk for hepatitis C infection

Healthcare workers are at significantly higher risk of contracting viral hepatitis C--60 percent--than the general population, a study published in BMJ Occupational & Environmental Medicine found.

The higher risk varied by country and region, as did the overall prevalence of hepatitis C. Medical and laboratory staff had the highest risk of infection, according to the study abstract. Researchers said further study was needed to focus on specific activities and personal risk factors for viral hepatitis C infection.

Healthcare workers who deal directly with blood were at triple the risk of contracting hepatitis C than the general population, according to the research, while the risk was about double for healthcare workers in the U.S., Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, as opposed to infection rates in Japan, which were comparable with rates in the general population.

Men also were infected at three times the rate of female healthcare workers, according to the findings. About 80 percent of healthcare workers have been stuck by needles, the researchers found. Whether they are infected with hepatitis C depends on how deep the injury, how much infectious material is transferred and the virus load in the infected patient.

Researchers discounted drug abuse among healthcare workers as a factor in higher infection rates.

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

The findings comes amid controversy about a new class of drugs to fight hepatitis C--at a cost of about $1,000 a pill for a 12-week course of treatment. Medicare Part D spending on hepatitis C drugs increased more than 15-fold between 2013 and 2014. For their part, private insurers were covering the expensive medications only when patients had advanced liver disease.

News coverage of hepatitis C infection more commonly focuses on patients infected by lax hospital infection-control procedures, rather than infection rates among healthcare workers. This summer, for example, Seattle Children's Hospital had to notify families of 12,000 patients that some surgical equipment was incorrectly sterilized, leaving patients at risk for hepatitis B and C and HIV infection, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

For more information:
- check out the study
- here's the study abstract