NSW Health says a proposed law enabling authorities to force people to undergo testing for bloodborne diseases could actually put frontline workers at greater risk.
The department’s evidence to a parliamentary committee came as a senior NSW police official said it’s “not unusual” for officers to get pelted with faeces mixed with blood.
Getting bitten, spat on, or splashed with blood are some of the unfortunate realities faced on the job by emergency and prison workers, and come with the additional fear of getting infected with bloodborne diseases.
But the risk of infection from such incidents is very low, and drawing blood samples from people against their will could make them less likely to trust health workers to perform voluntary tests, a top NSW Health official said.
Such an increase in mistrust could make it harder for health workers to combat the spread of the diseases, including among prisoners where the prevalence of hepatitis C is up to 20 per cent higher than in the general community, the committee heard.
“The importance of reducing any stigma and discrimination, and improving the quality and accuracy of information about bloodborne viruses is paramount to engaging people in treatment,” said Michelle Cretikos, executive director with NSW Health‘s population and public health division.
“If people are discouraged from accessing treatment, then in fact the risk may increase, both to the people in the community as well as the workers that are looking after them.
“It‘s likely to reduce people’s trust in the health services … and may reduce access to treatment and access to care.”
Since 1994, there have been zero cases of NSW healthcare workers getting infected with HIV after an exposure in the workplace, Dr Cretikos said, pointing to an NSW Health policy directive.
That same directive included a survey of international studies, including an Australian one, all of which failed to turn up a single case of HIV transmission to healthcare workers after exposure to the virus.
“There have been zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero cases in all of those studies … And that’s correct over many years, across many countries,” Dr Cretikos said.