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Current Trends Update: Prospective Evaluation of Health-Care Workers Exposed via the Parenteral or Mucous-Membrane Route to Blood or Body Fluids from Patients with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome -- United States

On August 15, 1983, CDC initiated prospective surveillance of health-care workers (HCWs) with documented parenteral or mucous-membrane exposure to potentially infectious body fluids from patients with definite or suspected acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). As of December 31, 1984, 361 HCWs with such exposures were enrolled in CDC's surveillance registry under the auspices of participating hospitals, other health-care institutions, and state and local health departments in the United States. Each enrolled HCW is followed for 3 years with a semiannual interview, physical examination, and blood specimen collection. None of the HCWs have developed signs or symptoms suggestive of AIDS; 143 (40%) have now been followed for 12 months or longer.

Exposed HCWs have been reported from 33 states and the District of Columbia. Fifty-nine percent of the HCWs were reported from six states: New York (61), California (39), New Jersey (36), Pennsylvania (28), Florida (25), and Texas (23). As of December 31, 1984, the length of follow-up of HCWs ranged from 1 month to 45 months (mean 11 months; median 10 months). Two hundred eight (58%) HCWs were nurses; 66 (18%), physicians or medical students; 31 (9%), laboratory workers; 26 (7%), phlebotomists; 15 (4%), respiratory therapists; and the remaining 15 (4%) had less direct patient contact. Eighty-five percent were white, and 78% were female. Ages ranged from 18 years to 62 years (mean 33 years).

The majority of exposures occurred in direct patient-care areas; 187 (52%) occurred in patients' rooms or on the wards: 99 (27%), in intensive-care units; and seven (2%), in emergency clinics. Thirty-two (9%) incidents took place in laboratories, and 36 (10%) occurred in operating or procedure rooms and morgues. The types of exposures were: needlestick injuries (68%); mucosal exposures (13%); cuts with sharp instruments (10%); and contamination of open skin lesions with potentially infected body fluids (9%). Eighty-eight percent of the exposures were to blood or serum; 6%, to saliva; 2%, to urine; and the remaining 4%, to other body fluids or unknown sources. Postexposure care varied considerably. Forty-eight percent of exposed HCWs received either no specific treatment or local wound care only, while 35% received immune globulin either alone or in combination with other treatment.

Complete epidemiologic data have been collected on 226 of the patients to whom these HCWs were exposed. Two hundred nine (92%) were AIDS patients meeting the CDC surveillance definition, and 17 (8%) were suspected AIDS cases. Two hundred three (97%) of the 209 AIDS patients were in an identified risk group for acquiring AIDS. The distribution of the AIDS cases by disease category included: Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), 62%; Kaposi's sarcoma (KS), 12%; both KS and PCP, 5%; and other opportunistic infections, 21%.

Tests for T-cell subsets have been performed at CDC on blood specimens from 269 (75%) of the exposed HCWs. The mean T-helper/T-suppressor (Th/Ts) ratio for the initial whole blood sample from these HCWs was 2.2 with a range of 0.4-5.4 (normal range 1.0-3.9). One hundred eighty-three (68%) of these initial blood specimens were obtained within 180 days from the dates of exposures. Six-month and 12-month follow-up Th/Ts ratios were performed on 69 and six of these 269 HCWs, respectively. All Th/Ts ratios on follow-up specimens were within the normal range, including those from nine HCWs whose initial ratios were less than 1.0.

Serologic testing using the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (1) and the Western blot technique (2) for antibody to the human T-lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV-III) has been done, with specific informed consent, on 40 HCWs enrolled in the surveillance system. The mean duration between the date of exposure and the latest serum sample tested was 10.5 months (range 0-29 months; median 8.5 months). The types of exposures included: needlestick injuries (29), cuts with sharp objects (five), mucosal exposures (five), and contamination of open skin lesions (five). None of the HCWs tested were HTLV-III-antibody positive. However, with a sample size of 40, the upper limit of the 95% confidence intervals for this incidence of seropositivity (0%) is 7%. Reported by Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome Needlestick Surveillance Cooperative Group; Immunization Div, Center for Prevention Svcs, Div of Host Factors, Div of Viral Diseases, Hospital Infections Program, Center for Infectious Diseases, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Because HTLV-III can be transmitted among intravenous drug abusers by sharing needles and through transfusion of blood and blood products, there is concern that HTLV-III could be transmitted to HCWs by unintentional needlestick or other parenteral or mucous-membrane exposures. A recent report describes an HCW in England who is believed to have developed HTLV-III antibody following parenteral exposure to the blood of an AIDS patient (3). The HCW reportedly had none of the recognized risk factors for AIDS and remains asymptomatic.

To date, there are no reported cases of AIDS among HCWs in the United States that can be linked to a specific occupational exposure. Of the 8,218 AIDS patients reported to CDC as of February 11, 1985, 278 (3%) have been HCWs. All but 24 (9%) of these HCWs belong to known AIDS risk groups. Epidemiologic investigations have been completed on 17 of these 24 HCWs; four are currently under investigation, and three died before investigations were completed. In six of the 17 completed investigations, nonoccupational exposures were the most likely sources of infection. No known risk factors for infection were identified in the remaining 11 patients; however, specific occupational exposures to definite or suspected AIDS patients could not be documented.

In December 1984, CDC began testing sera from HCWs enrolled in the surveillance system for antibody to HTLV-III. Testing was performed only with the specific informed consent of enrolled personnel and the agreement of cooperating investigators. Initial results from this analysis and from other similar investigations (4) suggest the risk of transmission of HTLV-III infection from AIDS patients to HCWs may be very small. Thus, to accurately determine the true risk of transmission of HTLV-III from AIDS patients to HCWs, large cohorts of exposed HCWs must be studied. Additional studies with larger cohorts of HCWs are in progress, and CDC will continue immunologic and serologic testing of HCWs from whom institutional investigators have obtained informed consent.

Studies of seroprevalence of HTLV-III among exposed HCWs are of great value from an epidemiologic perspective. However, serologic testing of asymptomatic HCWs for HTLV-III antibody should be done only with informed consent, and a mechanism should exist for transmitting the test results to the HCW in an appropriate manner. The U.S. Public Health Service has developed specific recommendations for individuals, within or outside known risk groups for AIDS, who test positive for HTLV-III antibody (5-7). Health-care professionals should become familiar with and consider these recommendations when serologic testing of asymptomatic HCWs for HTLV-III antibody is contemplated.

Until additional data are available, HCWs should continue to follow previously published precautions when caring for persons with definite or suspected AIDS or when handling specimens from these patients (8,9).


  1. Getchell JP, Kalyanaraman VS. Unpublished data.

  2. Tsang VC, Peralta JM, Simons AR. Enzyme-linked immunoelectrotransfer blot techniques (EITB) for studying the specificities of antigens and antibodies seperated by gel electrophoresis. Methods Enzymol 1983;92:377-91.

  3. Anonymous. Needlestick transmission of HTLV-III from a patient infected in Africa. Lancet 1984;I:1376-7.

  4. Hirsch MS, Wormser GP, Schooley RT, et al. Risk of nosocomial infection with human T-cell lymphotropic virus III (HTLV-III). N Engl J Med 1985;312:1-4

  5. CDC. Prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS): report of inter-agency recommendations. MMWR 1983;32:101-3.

  6. CDC. Antibodies to a retrovirus etiology associated with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in populations with increased incidences of the syndrome. MMWR 1984;33:377-9.

  7. CDC. Provisional Public Health Service interagency recommendations for screening donated blood and plasma for antibody to the virus causing acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. MMWR 1985;34:1-5.

  8. CDC. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS): precautions for clinical and laboratory staffs. MMWR 1982;31:577-80.

  9. CDC. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS): precautions for health-care workers and allied professionals. MMWR 1983;32:450-1.

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