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Opinions of Thursday, 9 April 2009

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Kwaku

How Vulnerable Are The Police and Prison Officers to Hepatitis B Infection?

Let’s stop the police- bashing for now and instead focus on their health!

HOW DO WE PROTECT THE POLICE AND PRISON officers from blood –borne pathogens’ infections?

Serious health threats are inherent in policing and Correction professions. The Police and Prison officers usually have contact with violent offenders, part take in high-risk patrol duties, vulnerable to dangers or expose to unstable individuals and scenarios.

Most often we do not realize the health hazard that is associated with practitioners of these jobs. The chances of these officers getting infected by a deadly disease are ten times higher than the average citizen.

For once let us forget the negative publicity surrounding the Police and Prison officers and appraise the effect that vocation on the health of these officers and their dependants at home. . You should easily understand the link between the uniformed officers and their families just as any family unit. If a partner gets HIV/Aids, for instance, then the spouse and sometimes an innocent unborn baby would most probably get infected. Therefore, I believe the health of these law enforcement officers whose duty is to protect us should be of great concern to every Ghanaian.

When was the last time you read about the Police and their colleagues in other sister security services being offered information on the dangers of blood-borne pathogens? What are the possibilities of these men and women getting infested with TB, HIV, Hepatitis B and other deadly infectious diseases in the cause of their duties?

Hepatitis B infection is real and deadly, but how much do we know about the infectious rate among the prison population and the criminal elements in the Police’s custody?

The fact of the matter is we hardly know what goes on behind the Prison walls, the police stations and crime scenes. Behind the scene, these officers go through a lot of altercations and confrontations with criminals, and yet- to -be criminals, as they perform their duties every day. We often take their work for granted because what we don’t see don’t worry us. We have developed an out -of -sight – out- of -mind syndrome.

The officers are predisposed to dangers when handling exhibits, conducting forensics, moving suspects and inmates, not to mention aggressive and wounded criminals who are bent on harming the officers in every way possible.

The Police and Prison officials are constantly exposed to TB patients, blood, blood –borne pathogens, or other potentially infectious material during their normal working hours or during emergency situations. However, one may be tempted to ask whether this category of law enforcement officers are more exposed to these hazards than nurses or healthcare workers. The truth is that the healthcare workers are very much informed of these hazards and occupational safety measures. They are better placed to take all the precautionary measures to avoid contamination and exposure.

These blood pathogens may carry dangerous and deadly diseases, such as hepatitis A or B.

How is this disease spread? Hepatitis B (the more deadly of the two) is spread through contact with the blood or body fluids of a contaminated person. A person can become infested by:

1) Contact with blood and body fluids through breaks in the skin, such as bites, cuts, or body fluids on items such as toothbrushes or razors,

2) Having unprotected sex with an infected persons,

3) Sharing needles when injecting drugs, 4) Being struck with used contaminated needle or a sharp object.

Short -term Symptoms of Hepatitis B:

a) An infected person of this disease loses appetite. b) Diarrhea and vomiting c) Tiredness d) Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes) e) Pain in muscles, joints, and stomach.

Long- term symptoms: The development of chronic HB infection: This can be very serious, and often leads to: A) Liver damage (cirrhosis) b) Liver cancer c) Death

Tuberculosis (TB) disease:

This is a disease caused by germs that mostly affects the lungs. TB is an air- borne disease; it spreads through the air from person to person. When someone with infectious active TB disease of lungs or voice box coughs germ into the air people nearby can breathe in the TB germ and become infected. However, it usually takes prolonged repeated exposure to someone with infectious TB to become infected. TB is not usually spread through clothes, or other general use of items.

How to find out if you have TB germs: TB germs can live in your body for a long time without making you sick. So a special diagnostic test called Tuberculin Skin Test is conducted to see if you have TB germs in your body. If the test is positive, it means TB germs have entered your body at some point in the past. At that point you will need a chest x- ray and sputum test to make sure you do not have TB. ,

SYMPTOMS OF ACTIVE TB Disease: a) An infected person coughs lasting longer than two weeks. b) The cough produces sputum. c) Fever lasting longer than 3 days, d) Unexplained weight loss e) Chronic fatigue f) Night sweats and loss of appetite.

The Prevention of Blood- borne pathogens diseases:

Universal precaution is needed all the time, including the following: Treat all bodily fluid as potentially contaminated. Wash your hands regularly with soap. Wear rubber gloves, clean hand cuffs and keys with peroxide or other cleaning solutions. The cells, front -desk and prison areas should be decontaminated on regular basis with peroxide and cleaning solution. All blood contaminated evidence and clothing should be properly labeled. Properly dispose of any blood contaminated items. The Police personnel and prison staff who have contact with prisoners and suspects should be vaccinated against Hepatitis B.

Procedure for Post-exposure Follow-up:

1) Seek medical attention or/and perform immediate first aid in the event of any exposure to blood and/or body fluids. a) Wash exposed skin promptly with soap and water b) Needle sticks and/or puncture wounds should be washed thoroughly with soap and water. c) Flush the skin area with clean water, salty or sterile water.

2) If the source status is known and negative by history, the source (inmate or suspect) should be tested for Hepatitis B antigen, Hepatitis C Antibody, and HIV after counseling and consent.

The Role of Government:

To ensure the safety of the prison and police officers, suspects and prison inmates the government must take steps to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure to blood, blood –borne pathogens and other infectious materials. It should also include providing appropriate training to our officers in uniform to remind them of the dangers of infectious diseases and how to prevent them. Further more, Occupational exposure to blood- borne pathogens treatment and counseling should be offered to those who have already been infected by the disease.

The government can also play an important role in all that by supplying appropriate protective apparel and other equipment and ensure that officers use them. It can also promote and implement safer devices that are designed to eliminate or reduce exposure to risk of blood-borne pathogens.

I know you’re very disappointed for not reading one of the attack-dog write- ups to vilify personnel of the law enforcement agencies. Sorry to disappoint you on that one. The point is the police and prison officers are also part of the society. When they are not safe the rest of us won’t be safe. The safer they are, the more protected and safer the citizenry will be. I propose that all law enforcement agencies must be properly equipped with the right accoutrement to protect them from avoidable hazards. That will be a win, win for all of us.

Oh, once we’re on law enforcement officers’ health, let’s go a little notch ,by throwing in the importance of exercise into the equation .What about the government providing a Gym at police stations ?

Yes, call me a “dreamer !” .I know that sounds naive on my part, given the fact that most police stations lack an ordinary two-way radio or a bicycle, let alone a cheap basic computer. However, sometimes it does help to provoke our thinking faculties, just to force us to dream of the ‘impossibilities ’. Sometimes, the mind can not tell the difference between an illusion and reality. The faculty of perception can pretty much determine how much to work toward a goal.

Anyway, protecting the health of our law enforcement officers is one of the best investments we can afford. But, I wonder if anyone will listen. Who wants to be bothered with Police and Prison officers’ health issues!

Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi NJ, USA

* The author is social commentator and the founder of Adu-Gyamfi Youth Empowerment with Educational and Apprenticeship Foundation of Asuom, E/R.

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