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Infectious health care workers: should patients be told?
  1. Anthony J Pinching
  1. St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London

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    This thoughtful reflection on a valuable questionnaire survey of patients' attitudes regarding being told that their dentist had been infected with hepatitis B is of very direct relevance to HIV, as the authors show.1 The measured tone and analytical approach are a welcome change from the stridency that has characterised some of the debate elsewhere. I am very conscious that more time and effort has gone into drafting and redrafting, amending, revising and refining policy in this area (in the UK at least) than in any other area of HIV control, with the probable exception of blood transfusion. Yet this is the setting that has the lowest risk among all established routes. Why has it been so hard to establish a satisfactory policy and practice to deal with this situation?

    Many factors, of course, apply. However, much seems to stem from a prevailing view, fostered by recent political administrations, that health care can be delivered in a risk-free way. This has also been linked with a “blame culture”, where adverse outcomes are seen as someone's fault, and where the professions (and the “establishment”) are regarded with distrust. It has been fuelled by levels of concern about risk for HIV (and other blood-borne pathogens to a lesser extent) that have stemmed more from media “stories” about (perceived) risk than careful risk assessment.

    Hence Blatchford et al comment that public anxiety about HIV relative to hepatitis B was a factor in assessing how the incident was handled, implying that HIV was of greater concern - even though the risk of transmission is some two orders of magnitude less. Interestingly, they also comment that, because the risk of death with HIV is higher than for hepatitis B, this balances the overall risk. I am not sure of the validity of this argument, …

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    • Anthony J Pinching is Louis Freedman Professor of Immunology and Fellow, Department of Human Science and Medical Ethics, St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary & Westfield College, West Smithfield, London EC1A 7BE.

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