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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 

Police routinely risk exposure to infectious disease

Florida Today

Dwayne Young remembers the bite.

The 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 transmitted disease.

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.

''He bit all the way to the bone,'' Young said, pointing to a scar.

For 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.

''I took a drink of water, and they came and drank, too, and I was worried that I might have exposed them, too,'' he said.

As it turned out, the suspect had syphilis, which cannot be transmitted through saliva.

MORE SPITTING

Last month, another man spit in Young's eyes and face as he tried to subdue him at the Palm Bay Hospital.

''We 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,'' he said.

In 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.

The Tasers fire two electrical probes up to 21 feet away that cause a person's muscles to contract, temporarily disabling them.

Since 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.

Young 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.

His 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.

FIRST ON SCENE

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.

Her 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Any 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.

TO TELL OR NOT

He 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 governments.

The operating room nurse has trained police as well, and says the risk of contraction is small, but risk of exposure is fairly high locally.

''We see a lot of homeless in our area,'' he said, and some have a condition that causes blood in their vomit.

He 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 said.

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.