Hepatitis C: Just Following Medical Protocol

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I started working as a licensed practical nurse in the mid-70s. This was before anyone knew what AIDS was, and it was well before hepatitis C even had a name.

Working as a nurse, I had to be vaccinated against hepatitis B; that was a requirement for starting the job. But once I’d received the vaccination, there wasn’t anything to worry about. That was the mindset. As far as the medical industry was aware at the time, hepatitis B was the only blood borne virus you had to look out for. And everyone on staff was vaccinated, so there was no need for any further precautions—or so we thought.

Looking back, clinical protocols in the ‘70s were shockingly relaxed. When we gave injections or administered other medications, we’d take a tray out of the medicine room and bring it from room-to-room, delivering drugs to our patients. After delivering each injection, we would recap the needle and oftentimes put the empty syringe in our pocket. There weren’t receptacles for the needles in each room, so you had to carry them around with you until you finished giving meds.

It wasn’t every day that a needle would come uncapped in your pocket and stick you, but it happened. Delivering meds day after day, year after year, I’m sure it happened to almost every nurse. And when it did, it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t any procedure in place to investigate the exposure. I remember being stuck with a needle on several occasions—any one of them could have exposed me to the hepatitis C virus. We still had no idea what hepatitis C was.

In the 70s, we were rarely—if ever—required to wear gloves. I can’t tell you how many times I cleaned up dried blood without wearing gloves. If I didn’t contract the virus through a needle stick, I’m sure there were plenty of chances for blood-to-blood contact through a tiny cut on my uncovered hands.

Of course, I don’t know for sure when and how I was exposed to the virus. But, given that I’d never received a blood transfusion and never used intravenous drugs, I can only assume it was through my work that I contracted hepatitis C.

About 75 percent of people with hepatitis C don't even know they have it. Gia Tyson, M.D., talks about the basics.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Feb 16, 2015

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