Needlestick Injuries Common In Female Veterinarians, Study Finds

March 26, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two out of every three female veterinarians have reported accidental needlestick wounds while they were on the job, according to a recent study.

The injured veterinarians reported side effects in 16.4 percent of the unintentional needlestick wounds, ranging from many cases of mild irritation to one miscarriage.

The study, published in a recent issue of Occupational Medicine, pointed out that veterinarians often use several of the same medications that are used by other physicians.

“One of the rationales for doing the study was the fact that some of the medications and exposures veterinarians might experience would be the same as health care workers who work with people, in terms of anesthetic gases, some of the drugs and X-rays,” said Jay Wilkins, co-author of the study and associate professor of public health at Ohio State University.

“We were motivated in large part by concern over possible problems for pregnant women,” Wilkins said. More than 70 percent of first-year veterinary students today are women, compared to just about 10 percent in 1970.

Wilkins and co-author Michael Bowman, a former graduate research associate in public health, surveyed 2,532 female veterinarians, asking how many times each had accidentally stuck themselves with a needle.

Respondents were asked what kinds of substances were injected and any resulting side effects. Vaccines were the most commonly injected substances, accounting for about half of the injections, followed by anesthetics, euthanasia drugs and antibiotics.

Almost 62 percent of the women reporting side effects felt mild irritation, pain, swelling and soreness surrounding the punctured area. Nearly 12 percent of the veterinarians experienced numbness and fewer than 4 percent had a bout of mild dizziness.

Severe side effects included nine cases of brucellosis, a bacterial illness that may be transmitted from animals such as cows, goats and hogs to humans, and one spontaneous abortion in the 15th week of pregnancy. Extreme swelling and inflammation affected almost 5 percent of those who experienced side effects, while five doctors endured allergic reactions and two had psychedelic experiences.

The majority of needlestick injuries occurred in situations where the veterinarians were treating smaller animals. Women in small- and mixed-animal practices reported 9.8 and 9.7 sticks per 100 working years respectively, while those in large animal practice only reported 5.8 needlestick wounds per 100 years, a rate 40 percent lower than the other groups. Wilkins said he was surprised by the wide gap in needlestick rates, and added that he has not looked at the characteristics of women in the latter veterinary practice group.

Wilkins said he suspects the rate of women veterinarians accidentally sticking themselves may be almost two times higher than reported.

“Some of the women in the study were asked to think back over the 16 or 17 years they’ve been working,” he said, adding that doctors commonly responded with, ‘It’s happened a lot. I really can’t remember how many times.’”
Wilkins also said that while the animal practitioners are now more aware of this occupational hazard than they were a decade ago, it is important that the women realize the potential side effects of accidental injections.

“The special health concerns of female veterinarians are attracting increasing attention as greater numbers of women enter the profession,” he said.

He added that nurses, hospital lab technicians, hospital housekeeping staff and emergency medicine personnel appear to be at similar risk of sticking themselves with a syringe.

This study was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Contact: Jay Wilkins, (614) 293-3897;
Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310;

Ohio State University

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