Rules that ban healthcare workers with HIV from performing certain medical procedures are to be repealed, the UK’s chief medical officer said.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said the rules – which ban doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists with HIV from performing procedures with high risk of exposure – were “outdated”.
She added that advances in monitoring and treating HIV now mean that the chance of being infected with the virus by a healthcare worker was “more remote than being struck by lightning”.
The changes, which health officials said would bring the UK into line with other developed countries – including Sweden, France and New Zealand –will come into effect in April and mark a major policy shift, which reflects the significant progress that has been made in the fight against HIV/Aids in the past three decades.
“Many of the UK’s HIV policies were designed to combat the perceived threat at the height of the HIV concerns in the 1980s and have now been left behind by scientific advances and effective treatments,” Dame Sally said. “It is time we changed these outdated rules which are sometimes counter-productive and limit people’s choices on how to get tested or treated early.”
Improved treatments mean that people with HIV can now live healthy, normal lives, so long as they take daily antiretroviral tablets – which also make the risk of infecting other people extremely low.
Home testing kits for HIV, which have been banned in the UK since 1992, will also become legal from April 2014 and will be regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority. The number of healthcare workers known to be living with HIV is low. Only 110 are believed to be working in the specific areas where bans on certain procedures apply – which include obstetrics and gynaecology, midwifery and dentistry. There have only been four cases worldwide of patients being infected with HIV by a healthcare worker – and none in the past decade. However, for some professionals a positive HIV diagnosis can end careers in areas that require frequent exposure-prone procedures.
Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, said that removing the ban would mean more health professionals getting tested and would actually reduce patients’ already minimal risk of infection.
“People can come up with a lot of excuses not to have an HIV test and if your career is on the line, even subconsciously that’s going to be another reason why not to,” she said. “These changes will remove a potential barrier [to testing].
“We don’t think there are a lot of healthcare workers out there with HIV who are not telling people, but we do think that the current rules actually feed into the stigma and create barriers to having a test.”
Around 100,000 people are currently living with HIV in the UK, although around a quarter of those do not know they have it, according to projections. More than 6,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2011 and infection rates have been rising steadily over the past decade, with particularly large increases among the gay community in recent years.
Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive at sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Advances in medication have transformed what it means to live with HIV, and it’s great to see regulations starting to catch up… Legislation plays a vital role in shaping attitudes. We hope these changes continue to improve public understanding of HIV and support for those living with the virus.”