ATLANTA, JULY 27 -- Convinced that the fear of AIDS is rising sharply among the nation's health care workers, federal officials met today to draft new guidelines to prevent transmission of the disease in hospitals.
Meeting at the federal Centers for Disease Control, representatives from more than 60 public health, labor and medical organizations began debate on a controversial plan that would include testing many hospital patients for the AIDS virus. But many participants questioned aspects of the proposal and cautioned against panic.
"There is no data to support the view that testing patients will make us safer," said Dr. David Henderson, chief epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center. "The thing that scares me the most is my belief that this will create two standards of care in American hospitals: one for those who test negative and another for those who test positive."
The meeting to revise CDC guidelines on health care safety was called in response to the May 21 disclosure that three health care workers became infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) after being splashed with the blood of patients carrying the virus.
It was the first report of the virus' transmission through a single exposure not involving a needle stick. Blood is splashed frequently in hospitals and many health care workers became alarmed by the reports despite assurances that the chances of infection from spills are extremely remote.
As of July 10, 1,875, or 5.8 percent, of the 32,395 adults with AIDS reported employment in a health care or clinical laboratory setting. That figure matches almost exactly the 5.5 percent of the U.S. labor force employed in health services.
Health care workers have already been instructed by the CDC to treat all blood and bodily fluid as if it might be infected. Gloves, eye protection and gowns have been recommended for many workers.
Although increased testing will be the toughest issue in revising the guidelines, the degree to which workers must wear the protective clothing is also being discussed.
In addition, the new guidelines may suggest that hospitals test health care workers as well as patients and in some cases prevent them from performing surgery.
Federal officials today said there was far less than a 1 percent chance that any health care worker would contract the AIDS virus from a patient.
"To those of us exposed to huge amounts of blood every day, these figures are extremely disturbing," said Dr. James Baker, who has studied HIV infection among patients in the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "We see so many patients and so much blood that statistics like that are not a comfort."
The Public Health Service estimates that more than 1 million Americans are infected with the AIDS virus.
Federal officials say that compliance with existing guidelines for health care workers -- even in regions where AIDS cases are most concentrated -- has been spotty.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the San Francisco General Hospital's infection control program, said fewer than half of San Francisco's doctors appear to adhere to current CDC guidelines for protection.