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By Gary Evans, Senior Staff Writer
Increased transmission of Zika virus is expected in the U.S. as mosquitoes continue to emerge in the warmer months, raising a critical question for healthcare workers: Can Zika be transmitted from an infected patient by a needlestick? The default answer for now is: Yes.
Though it was not known at this writing whether any such case of occupational Zika infection has been documented, there is every reason to err on the side of caution given that Zika has already been transmitted sexually and is causing an unprecedented level of birth defects. In addition, one would intuitively think the stick of a needle containing Zika virus-contaminated blood would simulate transmission via the mosquito's penetrating proboscis -- though the latter is said to probe with an impressive flexibility. Even if Zika is injected into a worker via a needle, other variables like the viral titer circulating in the patient's blood and the immune status of the injured worker would in part determine the likelihood of subsequent infection. .
In any case, prevention of the needlestick is the best way to prevent occupational spread of Zika and other bloodborne pathogens. Thus public health officials are emphasizing in new Zika prevention guidelines for workers that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires the following:
Employers should consider enhanced precautions in situations where workers are at increased risk of exposure to Zika virus or other hazards, according to recommendations issued by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthcare workers should use standard precautions during patient care regardless of suspected or confirmed Zika infection status.
“While there is no evidence of Zika transmission through aerosol exposure, minimizing the aerosolization of blood or body fluids as much as possible during patient care or laboratory tasks may help prevent workers from being exposed to other pathogens,” the guidelines state. “Additional protections, including engineering controls to ensure containment of pathogens or enhanced PPE to prevent or reduce exposure, may be necessary during any aerosol generating procedures or other such tasks.”