Don't let infectious disease end your career (or your life)

Your clientele may be carrying an invisible threat worse than any gun or knife

Law enforcement officers accept more risk of bodily harm than people in most other occupations, but the typical expectation is that, if the harm comes, it will be in the form of a bullet, knife, car, or some other threat we understand and prepare for. There is an ever-increasing threat from a harmful instrument you can’t see — viruses and bacteria hitching a ride on arrestees and inmates, people whom you have an occupational obligation to touch on a regular basis.

I was a cop during the rise of AIDS, which was not well-understood at the time. Many of my fellow officers refused outright to touch anyone they suspected was homosexual, because they believed the “gay curse” could be transferred to them through any casual contact. Most know now that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS is extremely fragile and cannot survive outside the body. Intimate contact, usually involving fluid exchange, is necessary for transmission, although there have been some rare cases where infections have occurred through accidental needle sticks.

Given the other threats I’m going to tell you about below, AIDS is the least of your worries.

Drug-resistant Gonorrhea
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning on the spread of an untreatable strain of gonorrhea. Gonorrhea is usually a sexually-transmitted disease caused by a bacterium called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Historically, it’s been treatable with common antibiotics like erythromycin, but human carelessness has allowed a drug-resistant bug to evolve. Treatment of gonorrhea usually involves a course of antibiotics over several weeks to eradicate the virus. When people don’t finish the antibiotic regimen, the bugs most resistant to the drug flourish and propagate.

Repeat this scenario over several years, and you wind up with a version of N. gonorrhoeae that no drug will kill. Your sex life is clearly over, but worse is when the infection spreads to the joints and other tissues to the point you become septic and die.

Obvious precautions include practicing safe sex, especially if you have multiple partners. But also be aware that infections can occur through exposed mucous membranes in your nose, mouth and eyes. An infected person who spits or bleeds on you could conceivably transmit the disease to you.

Another scary infection is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known more commonly as MRSA (pronounced MER-sa). This is one you can definitely get from casual contact, and the contact doesn’t even need to be the infected person himself. This bug can survive for weeks on contaminated surfaces, which can include countertops, steering wheels — just about any place a person or contaminated item has touched.

Once MRSA gets in your system, it can take hold anywhere — a joint or just below the skin are popular spots. It produces ghastly, painful infections that can also lead to sepsis and death if untreated. There are some cephalosporin-based antibiotics that will kill most strains of MRSA, but it’s a long haul, no matter what, and there is no assurance that damage may not be permanent. If you’re unconvinced, put the terms “MRSA infections” into Google Images, but not before lunch.

If these two haven’t gotten your attention yet, there is always hepatitis. Unlike the other two afflictions I’ve described, hepatitis is caused by a virus, and is thus more difficult to treat and kill. There are three versions, A, B and C, but vaccines exist only for the first two. You need to be vaccinated for both. You can live with a hepatitis infection for a long time, and many people die of something unrelated before their hepatitis rises up to smite them. Once it does take hold, it attacks your liver, leading to decreased function, cirrhosis, or cancer. You can get along without a liver for about two days, maybe three, but by that time you’ll wish you were dead.

The infection vector for hepatitis is oral-fecal (yuck, I know), and a significant portion of the people you come into contact with are not especially diligent about washing their hands after they use the toilet. The virus is hardy and will survive in open air. A 2004 paper from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicated that about one-third of inmates in U.S. prisons were hepatitis C carriers. In the 1980s, one in four jail and prison inmates carried hepatitis B, but I couldn’t find any more current numbers. My bet is that the situation hasn’t improved.

You can wear disposable gloves, douse yourself in hand sanitizer, or decide you’re going to handle everyone with tongs, but your best defense is a very simple one you have heard before: wash your hands. Wash your hands every time you have the opportunity to do so. Using hand sanitizer will kill bugs on the surface of your skin, but it won’t remove the oils and other foreign matter that cause microbes to cling more easily.

Soap and water do that, and they do it better than any alcohol gel can. If you have any small wounds on exposed skin, cover them with an adhesive bandage, and carry spares. If you’re not handling prisoners, keep in mind you’re using a phone, driving a car, or touching a doorknob of someone who is, if they’re not the prisoner himself.

The conventional threats should be enough for anyone. Don’t be taken down by an invisible attacker. 

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