oa South African Family Practice - Cold comfort for health care workers? Medico-ethical dilemmas facing a health care worker after occupational exposure to HIV : forum

Volume 52, Issue 4
  • ISSN : 2078-6190
  • E-ISSN: 2078-6204



Following exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) it is advisable for the health care worker (HCW) to take post-exposure prophylaxis. A prerequisite for this is the establishment of the HIV status of the HCW and the patient. Ordinarily, this would be preceded by the ascertainment of the HIV status of the HCW and the patient. This should be done as soon as possible after exposure, usually within 24 hours. If the exposure takes place when the patient is under anaesthetic, which is often the case, consent for HIV testing is not readily forthcoming and this poses an ethical dilemma. A similar dilemma is posed by a patient who, having awoken, is not in a position or is unwilling to give consent. This paper discusses the ethical and legal constraints on the HCW and the employer in circumstances where the patient is not in a position to give consent. The paper concludes by restating the need to respect confidentiality and the autonomy of the patient and that informed consent is paramount in testing for HIV status. The paper proffers the view that testing the patient will not substantially alter the course of action open to the HCW and, in any event, will do little to allay the fears of HCWs.

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