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Background There has been little research on the use of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) for occupational exposure in traveling health care workers (HCWs). Although PEP is the standard of care for occupational exposure to HIV in the United States, in third-world countries such medications are often unavailable and risks to the HCW may be higher. The aims of this study were to assess the incidence and types of blood and body fluid exposure and subsequent use of PEP in traveling HCWs seen at a large travel clinic prior to travel.

Methods To determine the utility of PEP, we retrospectively evaluated all HCWs presenting for counseling prior to travel for health care delivery. All employees who were seen at the Mayo Travel and Tropical Medicine Clinic from 1999 until July 2002 were included. Analysis was conducted via a chart review as well as an approved questionnaire mailed to all employees still at the Mayo Clinic.

Results Eighty-six HCWs were included in the analysis, and 58 responded to the questionnaire. Of the 86 HCWs reviewed, 55 (64%) were determined to be at high risk for occupational exposure to HIV. Seventy-eight percent of the high-risk HCWs were documented to have been counseled about needlestick avoidance, and 55% brought PEP with them. In the 58 HCWs who returned the questionnaire, there were no reported deep needlesticks. One of the 39 high-risk HCWs who returned the questionnaire (2.6%) had a superficial needle exposure, but the source patient had pretested negative for HIV and therefore the HCW did not use PEP. Nine of the 39 (23%) had a blood splash onto intact skin, and one of these involved a large volume. This source patient also had pretested negative for HIV. None of the HCWs exposed to blood splash took PEP. Two HCWs (5.1%) at high risk had an exposure that would have required PEP if the source patient had not been pretested.

Conclusions Needlestick exposure and HIV PEP counseling is important for HCWs traveling for health care delivery. Exposure risks appear low but high enough to warrant supplying high-risk HCWs with PEP. HCWs are able to use the recommendations appropriately. Pretesting of surgical patients decreases the likelihood of starting PEP. Carrying a common supply of PEP for a larger group can decrease the cost of PEP.