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DebraW
13-09-2007, 01:27 PM
Law protects emergency workers
Compulsory tests for those who expose police, firefighters, EMTs to bodily fluids

Duncan Thorne, The Edmonton Journal
Published: September 13, 2007 2:05 am

When a criminal spat blood in Sgt. Mark Bloxham's eyes back in 1999, he unwittingly triggered a process that led to mandatory testing for HIV and other communicable diseases.

"I was recently married," Bloxham recalled Wednesday, as the provincial government announced that its Mandatory Testing and Disclosure Act will take effect as of Oct. 1. "We were trying to start a family right at that time."

The Edmonton officer went home and told his wife he may have been infected with a contagious disease such as HIV, or hepatitis B or C. But he wasn't sure if the man who spat at him was infected.

In Bloxham's case there was a way to find out, but only because the spitter was involved in a criminal offence. That opened the way to seek a search warrant on the man's medical records, which confirmed -- more than three weeks later -- that he had HIV and hep C.

Until Bloxham heard the bad news he lived with uncertainty. He should have started on a cocktail of preventative drugs within three days but waited eight or nine days.

It turned out he was not infected. But the delayed treatment meant he had to wait a year to be sure, before starting a family. Police say they need to know quickly if someone exposing an officer to bodily fluids was carrying a communicable disease. Bloxham, who credits others with helping him, started pushing for change.

He worked with the police department to update training and EPS arranged for 24-hour emergency nursing. He and others also pushed for legislation providing for compulsory testing of people who expose police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders to bodily fluids.

"It is a very good day," said Bloxham, who patrols the north division.

The legislation means an emergency worker, and even Good Samaritans, can go to a judge or justice of the peace, armed with a doctor's report.

They can apply for an order compelling someone who has contaminated them with bodily fluids to provide a medical sample.

Emergency services has 24-hour medical staff, making it practical to file an application quickly. It's expected an exposed person will get the results of a mandatory test within days.

The legislature unanimously passed a private member's bill for mandatory testing, the Blood Samples Act, in 2004. But the government never developed the necessary regulations and did not enforce the act.

That was deliberate, said Edmonton-Castle Downs MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, who sponsored the 2004 law. There were fears it would not withstand a charter challenge. So in 2006 the legislature passed the improved Mandatory Testing and Disclosure Act, a government bill.

Lukaszuk and Health Minister Dave Hancock said the government has worked since then to draw up regulations that should hold up in court, while winning support from various parties such as Alberta doctors.

"Health care professionals were concerned about health records and privacy of health concerns and that sort of thing," Hancock said.

As well as being spat on, emergency workers have been stabbed with needles and bitten.

Police Chief Mike Boyd said his officers experienced 40 body-fluid exposures in 2006 and have faced such cases 12 times so far this year. "Of those 12, two people have refused -- I repeat, refused -- to provide a blood sample."

The new law will end such problems, Boyd said. He said it brings peace of mind for emergency workers across the province.

Emergency Medical Services Chief Steve Rapanos said paramedics were jabbed with needles or otherwise exposed to body fluids 18 times last year. There have been 14 similar incidents so far in 2007.

Fire Chief Randy Wolsey said his staff have been exposed to body fluids five times so far this year.

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The Edmonton Journal 2007

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