Pathogenic Microorganisms: Law Enforcement's Silent Enemies

By Bigbee, David | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Pathogenic Microorganisms: Law Enforcement's Silent Enemies


Bigbee, David, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


In 1981, at the University of California Medical Center at Berkeley, young men began contracting a new and mysterious disease with multiple symptoms.(1) Most of the men died from a serious form of pneumonia, but more puzzling was the fact that they had almost totally deficient immune systems. Doctors eventually named this elusive condition, which is really a myriad of diseases, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). They discovered later that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmits the AIDS virus.(2)

By the end of June 1992, 230,179 Americans had contracted HIV.(3) Furthermore, the World Health Organization estimates that at least another million Americans are currently infected with HIV, and by the year 2000, 30 to 40 million people worldwide will have contracted the virus.(4)

Every day, law enforcement officers come into contact with suspects and crime victims infected with HIV and other diseases, particularly hepatitis B and tuberculosis (TB). Recognizing the possibility of infection by these diseases to law enforcement officers, FBI Laboratory personnel, in conjunction with all FBI field offices, conducted a survey of all law enforcement agencies in the United States and its territories to determine if, and how often, police officers contracted HIV or hepatitis B while performing their official duties. This article discusses the results of this survey and its implications for law enforcement personnel.

THE DISEASES

AIDS

AIDS is a lethal disease, and the medical community holds little hope for either a cure or a vaccine for it in the near future. The incubation period--that is, the amount of time from infection to the appearance of symptoms--may be as long as 10 years.(5) In addition, approximately 30 percent of pregnant women infected with HIV transmit the virus to their unborn children.(6)

Hepatitis B

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) causes the disease hepatitis B (formerly known as serum hepatitis). The incubation period for hepatitis B averages 120 days. HBV can result in acute and chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and/or liver cancer. An estimated 750,000 to 1 million people in the United States carry the hepatitis B virus. And, approximately 90 percent of pregnant women with the disease pass it to their unborn children.(7)

Tuberculosis

Until recently, tuberculosis rarely existed in the United States. However, a multidrug-resistant strain of TB has surfaced, primarily in hospitals and correctional facilities. TB usually appears after the immune systems of its victims have been compromised by other diseases, such as AIDS and cancer.

Methods of Transmission

Both AIDS and hepatitis B are transmitted by sexual activity, the exchange of such body fluids as blood, semen, vaginal, and cervical secretions, the use of infected intravenous drug needles and syringes, the transfusion of infected blood products, or accidental infections. Neither so-called "casual contact," such as being in the same room with an infected person, nor insects transmit either disease. In addition, should a woman become pregnant subsequent to contracting the disease, she could infect her baby with either or both of the viruses.(8)

In contrast, because the bacteria that cause TB often affect the lungs, airborne transmission of saliva and sputum from infected people almost exclusively spreads the disease. Put simply, when people with TB cough, they produce tiny droplet nuclei that contain bacteria and can remain suspended in the air for prolonged periods of time. Anyone who breathes this contaminated air can become infected; however, a person with a healthy immune system usually does not.

Although about 10 to 15 million people in the United States are infected with TB, only about 10 percent of those people will ever become ill from the disease.(9) The remainder will only show evidence of infection through a positive skin test. Those who do become ill, however, especially with the multidrug-resistant strain, usually die from respiratory failure. …

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