What are the Most Common Bloodborne Pathogens?

Bloodborne pathogens are infectious microorganisms in human blood that can cause human disease. As healthcare workers, it is crucial to understand these pathogens to protect both patients and yourself from potential infections.

This blog post will discuss the three most common bloodborne pathogens: Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV, and provide essential information on their transmission, risk factors, and prevalence.

1. Hepatitis B (HBV)

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver, causing both acute and chronic disease. Transmission occurs through contact with infected blood or other body fluids, including sexual contact, sharing needles, and from mother to child during childbirth. Healthcare workers are at risk when handling needles and sharp instruments or when exposed to blood splashes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 296 million people are living with chronic HBV infection, with 820,000 deaths occurring in 2019 due to complications such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Chronic hepatitis B is a viral infection that poses a significant risk to public health, as it can lead to severe liver complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. The risk of developing chronic hepatitis B largely depends on the age at which an individual is infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Infants and young children are at the highest risk, with approximately 90% of infants infected at birth and 25-50% of children infected between the ages of 1 and 5 developing chronic hepatitis B.

In contrast, only 5-10% of adults who contract HBV progress to chronic infection. Other factors that increase the risk of developing chronic hepatitis B include having a weakened immune system due to conditions such as HIV or undergoing immunosuppressive therapy, long-term hemodialysis, and a family history of hepatitis B infection. The risk of chronic hepatitis B can be significantly reduced through vaccination, practicing safe sex, and taking other preventive measures to avoid exposure to the virus.

2. Hepatitis C (HCV)

Hepatitis C is another viral infection that primarily affects the liver. Like HBV, it can cause both acute and chronic infections. Transmission occurs mainly through exposure to infected blood, such as sharing needles, unscreened blood transfusions, or poorly sterilized medical equipment. Healthcare workers are at risk through needlestick injuries or contact with infected blood. WHO estimates that 58 million people are living with chronic HCV infection, with approximately 290,000 deaths occurring in 2019 due to HCV-related liver diseases.

3. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV is a viral infection that attacks the immune system, leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Transmission occurs through contact with infected blood, sexual contact, sharing needles, and from mother to child during childbirth or breastfeeding. Healthcare workers can be exposed to HIV through needlestick injuries, handling sharp instruments, or contact with infected blood. According to WHO, approximately 38.4 million people were living with HIV worldwide in 2021, with on average 650,000 deaths occurring in the same year due to HIV-related illnesses.

Chronic HIV infection, if left untreated, can progress to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a severe and life-threatening condition that severely compromises the immune system. The risk of developing chronic HIV and AIDS is primarily associated with specific behaviors and exposure risks. These include engaging in unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner or multiple partners, sharing needles or equipment for injecting drugs, receiving blood transfusions or organ transplants from an HIV-positive donor, and being exposed to contaminated needles or equipment through medical procedures or tattooing. Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding is another route of infection.

Individuals with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are at a higher risk of contracting HIV due to compromised genital mucosal surfaces. Preventive measures to reduce the risk of developing chronic HIV and AIDS include practicing safe sex using barrier protection, participating in regular HIV testing, avoiding sharing needles or equipment for drug use or other activities, and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication if at high risk for HIV exposure. Early diagnosis and initiation of antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help control the virus, prevent progression to AIDS, and reduce the risk of transmission to others.

What Is the Most Common Risk of Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens for Healthcare Workers?

The most common risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens for healthcare workers is needlestick injuries. These injuries can occur when handling, disposing of, or accidentally being pricked by contaminated needles or sharp instruments. To reduce the risk of needlestick injuries and exposure to bloodborne pathogens, healthcare workers should:

  • Use safety-engineered needles and sharps devices
  • Follow proper procedures for handling and disposing of sharps
  • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, and gowns
  • Receive vaccinations for preventable diseases like Hepatitis B

Other Bloodborne Pathogens

Other common bloodborne pathogens include Syphilis, Malaria, and MRSA. These infections can also pose risks to healthcare workers, although their incidence rates are generally lower than those of HBV, HCV, and HIV.

  • West Nile virus (WNV): West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause febrile illness, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord). While primarily transmitted through mosquito bites, it can also be transmitted through blood transfusions, organ transplants, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
  • Syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It can also be transmitted through contact with infected blood or from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to severe complications, including damage to the nervous system, heart, and other organs.
  • Malaria: Malaria is a parasitic infection transmitted through the bite of infected Anopheles mosquitoes. Although rare in the United States, it can be transmitted through blood transfusions or from mother to child during pregnancy. Malaria can cause severe illness, including high fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms, and can be fatal if not treated promptly.
  • Babesiosis: Babesiosis is a parasitic infection caused by the Babesia parasite, which infects red blood cells. It is transmitted primarily through the bite of infected ticks but can also be transmitted through blood transfusions. Babesiosis can cause flu-like symptoms, hemolytic anemia, and, in severe cases, organ failure or death.
  • Brucellosis: Brucellosis is a bacterial infection caused by the Brucella species, which can infect humans through contact with infected animal blood, tissues, or fluids. Although rare in the United States, brucellosis can cause flu-like symptoms, joint pain, and complications such as inflammation of the heart, liver, or spleen.
  • MRSA: A multi-drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus, among many other bacteria, can also be co-transmitted with HIV, HBV, and HCV.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Many dangerous bloodborne pathogens exist and can be transmitted by an accidental needlestick or exposure. As a healthcare professional, staying up to date on bloodborne pathogen training could very well save your life! Plus, it’s a requirement.

What Is the Most Common Bloodborne Infection in the United States?

Hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne infection in the United States, with the highest prevalence being in Baby Boomers born between 1945 - 1965. Transmission occurs primarily through exposure to infected blood, such as sharing needles or unscreened blood transfusions. Unlike hepatitis B, the risk of developing chronic hepatitis C is primarily associated with certain exposure risks and behaviors. Most individuals infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) – approximately 75-85% – will progress to chronic infection.

Risk factors include injection drug use, receiving blood products before 1992, and being born to an HCV-infected mother. Symptoms of HCV infection can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and jaundice. Current treatments for HCV include antiviral medications that can cure the infection in some cases. Prevention strategies involve safe injection practices, screening of blood products, and proper sterilization of medical equipment.

Conclusion

Understanding bloodborne pathogens is essential for healthcare workers to protect themselves and their patients from potential infections. By being aware of the most common bloodborne pathogens, their transmission methods, and risk factors, healthcare workers can take appropriate precautions to minimize exposure and ensure a safe working environment. Remember to always follow proper procedures, use appropriate PPE, and stay up-to-date on recommended vaccinations to reduce the risk of bloodborne pathogen exposure.

Protect yourself, your colleagues, and your patients by undergoing bloodborne pathogen training today! As healthcare professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of those in our care. By staying informed and up to date on bloodborne pathogen prevention and control measures, we can significantly reduce the risk of infection and transmission in our healthcare facilities.

This essential training will not only empower you with the knowledge and skills needed to handle potential exposure incidents but also foster a safer healthcare environment for all. Act now and join your fellow healthcare professionals in the fight against bloodborne pathogens. Together, we can make a difference in safeguarding the health of our communities.