The Department of Health recently announced that the ban preventing HIV+ surgeons, dentists and other health care staff from performing certain medical procedures is to be scrapped.

It was introduced when the routes of transmission were less well understood, and when medications’ efficacy wasn’t so clear.

In safe hands

In the last few years, a number of studies have proven that when someone is on treatment, and when the treatment is working (as it usually does), then there’s actually a very low risk of transmission.

HIV medication doesn’t, in itself, kill off HIV. What it does, is interfere with the virus so that it can’t reproduce, and then the body can attack it itself. The body won’t get rid of it completely, because some of the virus is able to “hide” from the white blood cells which attack it – but there’ll be so little virus in the system it’ll be very difficult to infect anyone else.

Compare that with someone who thinks they’re HIV negative. When someone catches HIV, they’ll be incredibly infectious for a few weeks. That’s because there will be a lot of virus in the system, and not many immune cells trying to kill it. Following that, they’ll simply be very infectious, as the body tries to attack it, slowly but surely losing the fight.

The right to know?

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, columnist Carole Malone said that patients must be told if they are being treated by an HIV positive health worker.

Her point was that until recently, we were being told that it was unsafe for people with HIV to carry out invasive procedures. Now, all of a sudden, it’s safe!

Actually, as I’ve explained, the danger is from people who think they’re HIV negative, but aren’t.

Universal precautions

When I worked at London Ambulance Service, the first thing we learned about was infection control. Universal precautions should protect the patient from the worker, and vice versa. By wearing, for example, disposable gloves and goggles where appropriate (such as in a dentist’s surgery, where there may be splashes of fluid), both people are as safe as it’s possible to be.

The other thing to consider is that HIV isn’t a particularly easy virus to catch, in the scheme of things. Other viruses are much easier to catch and can be much harder – or impossible – to treat. There is no suggestion that health workers with any kind of virus should be prevented from treating people, so it makes sense that HIV simply be considered as one among many to keep an eye on, and make sure that universal precautions are followed.

Next time you go to the doctor’s, or are treated for anything involving an invasive procedure, make sure they wash their hands and wear gloves. That’s the best way to make sure you go out with no more viruses than you came in with.

More information

For more information about how to keep yourself safe from HIV, please see my blog post from November 2010. Or phone the nice people at THT.