High risk of liver disease for Charlotte Maxeke nurses

Poor vaccination practices at a Johannesburg hospital has been putting nurses at a high risk of liver disease for over 10 years, according to a recent study by Wits and UCT.

Healthcare workers who work with blood are regularly exposed to hepatitis B virus, which causes liver disease in humans. These workers must be protected from infection by vaccination against the virus.

However, at the Charlotte Maxeke academic hospital, only half (52.4%) of staff and student nurses are currently protected against hepatitis B, according to recent research published in the South African Medical Journal.

Ten years ago hepatitis immunity was even lower, at 30.6%, and at the time recommendations were made to improve the situation. Wits researcher Dr Adam Mahomed said these recommendations had not been implemented and that “it is of great concern”. He added that labour laws were being contravened.

Nurses who were not vaccinated against the virus said they were not “aware of the danger of hepatitis as an occupational exposure” or that they did not know a vaccine was available. Some also cited not having enough time to get vaccinated or that they were told the vaccine had run out.

“We need a stronger commitment for the health authorities, but I think unions and staff clinics as well as the hospital’s infectious diseases unit need to be more pro-active,” said Mahomed. The system needed to be strengthened from an undergraduate level and he said this applied to all healthcare professions.

But Mohamed said such measures would not absolve employers from following due processes.

“I think this is a problem not limited to [Charlotte Maxeke] but probably [present in] the whole country.” He said hospitals should start a “catch-up” vaccination programme and that risks to staff should be monitored on a continuous basis.

Acute symptoms of hepatitis B infection include vomiting and jaundice; long term infection increases the risk of liver cancer.

The Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital is affiliated with the Wits School of Health Sciences.