Police routinely risk exposure to infectious disease
Dwayne Young remembers the bite.
Palm Bay police officer was trying to get a spray can away from a
suspect in 1998, when he felt the pain shoot through his arm. He
immediately began to worry about himself and his family when the
suspect's mother told police her son was terminally ill with a sexually
Police, who guard against high-profile dangers such as bullets and
knives, say the threat from bites and spit that might carry HIV,
hepatitis B or other infectious diseases concerns them almost as much.
The percentages of on-the-job exposures range from 2 percent to 10
percent for hepatitis to less than 1 percent for HIV, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that's little solace.
bit all the way to the bone,'' Young said, pointing to a scar.
the next six weeks, Young wondered whether he had been exposed to HIV.
As a precaution, the hospital gave him AZT, a powerful drug that affects
memory and made him ill. All the while, he thought of his grandchildren.
took a drink of water, and they came and drank, too, and I was worried
that I might have exposed them, too,'' he said.
turned out, the suspect had syphilis, which cannot be transmitted
month, another man spit in Young's eyes and face as he tried to subdue
him at the Palm Bay Hospital.
often place hands over wounds and then have to worry. We go to accident
scenes and we're not as programmed as the fire department to glove up,''
1998, when Young was first bitten, there were few, if any, procedures to
deal with such exposures. Lt. Doug Dechenne said one reason the Palm Bay
Police Department began issuing Tasers to officers about a year ago was
to keep them farther away from physical confrontations with suspects.
Tasers fire two electrical probes up to 21 feet away that cause a
person's muscles to contract, temporarily disabling them.
1999, each work site with at-risk employees has been required to have an
exposure control plan. Each officer carries a kit that contains
protective equipment such as rubber gloves, face mask, eye protection
and alcohol swabs. Each also receives annual training in how to prevent
exposure, Dechenne said.
said he wore his mask during the April 20 spitting incident, but even
the tiny holes in it allowed the saliva to wet his face. ''I was placing
him into a car, and my face was about a foot from his. It got me really
good,'' he said.
skin and eyes were flushed at the hospital, and he was given a general
antibiotic. ''He was at the hospital because of a seizure he had from
using crack cocaine. So exposure is certainly my concern,'' he said.
Police are often the first on the scene of car accidents and might come
into contact with a bleeding patient. They break up fights in which
victims or assailants may bleed. They process and often handcuff
suspects whose only remaining weapon may be biting or spitting. They
conduct searches and handle evidence, sometimes contaminated.
Imogene Mullins, administrative assistant in human resources for the
Brevard County Sheriff's Office, said her office handles at least one
exposure incident a week. ''It is a typical thing,'' she said.
department's plan was updated less than two years ago and includes
prevention and training as well as post-exposure procedures. Counseling,
medical treatment and employee assistance programs are available.
Officers may charge the person who bites or spits on them with battery
on a law enforcement officer.
are no exact numbers available for police officers who actually contract
potentially fatal infectious diseases by work exposure. Most are
healthcare workers or correctional officers rather than police officers.
CDC reports that of the 688,200 AIDS cases reported in the United States
through Jan. 1, 1999, 21,267 were the result of an at-work exposure.
long-term officer in the field probably has exposure stories to tell.
Dechenne's closest call was while he was off-duty last year. A motor
vehicle accident occurred directly in front of him, and he went to the
aid of a driver, who was bleeding. ''Florida Highway Patrol gave me some
wipes when they got on the scene. I gave my business card to the fire
department and told them to call me if there were any concerns,'' he
said. The woman died, and he never got a call. ''I was hoping they'd
call to at least say everything was OK,'' he said.
TELL OR NOT
said he had to decide whether to tell his family about the incident.
''It's a conscious decision whether to tell, because they are impacted,
too,'' he said.
Lou Liebig of Suntree, director of central services
at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, taught courses on
mitigating infectious disease exposure to military personnel and foreign
operating room nurse has trained police as well, and says the risk of
contraction is small, but risk of exposure is fairly high locally.
see a lot of homeless in our area,'' he said, and some have a condition
that causes blood in their vomit.
said police worry most about AIDS, but the exposure to hepatitis is much
greater. ''The best protection in the field is soap and water,'' he
Officers need to ask questions and become aware of the best way to
protect themselves, he said. Nothing is 100 percent safe, but
precautions reduce exposure, Liebig said.