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Nanaimo emergency workers support blood test bill

Nanaimo paramedics and firefighters support a proposed law requiring people to get tested for diseases if their bodily fluids come into contact with emergency workers.

The private member's bill, introduced by Kelowna Liberal MLA Norm Letnick last week, enables emergency workers and others exposed to bodily fluids to petition the courts to order the testing.

John Hosie, regional vice-president for the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and a Nanaimo paramedic for more than 30 years, said the bill would improve worker safety.

Paramedics deal daily with people who are coughing, bleeding and sneezing, he said.

And while they wear safety equipment like gloves, masks and eye protection, it sometimes fails to protect workers – for example, blood-to-blood contact can occur while extricating someone from a crumpled car if the worker gets scraped, said Hosie.

A colleague in Vancouver contracted hepatitis B through blood-to-blood contact with a patient and Hosie has been exposed twice in his career. In one of those instances, he was about to go on a cocktail of preventative medications when tests on a patient – who voluntarily agreed to the testing – came back negative.

"We don't have a strong way of making sure we're getting the information all the time," he said.

It is not uncommon for patients to lie to paramedics, downplay their medical histories or refuse to talk about it at all, said Hosie.

He said the drug therapy "takes a lot out of you" and can have side effects.

Ron Lambert, fire chief with Nanaimo Fire Rescue, said the bill could help spare families the anxiety that not knowing would cause.

"In some cases, it's a waiting game and testing and so forth," he said. "This to us is similar to knowing if there's hazardous materials on a property before we fight a fire. We do put a lot of emphasis on protection in the first place. We still from time to time have a chance of exposure."

The fire department has never had to deal with a transmission, Lambert added.

Letnick said he developed the legislation after the firefighters' association in Kelowna approached him with concerns.

If an emergency worker is exposed to someone's bodily fluids and the person won't voluntarily get tested, options right now are to do nothing or ingest a drug cocktail that is hard on the body.

"Why put these good people who are out there working on our behalf through that?" said Letnick. "The uncertainty it puts their families through is huge."

Five other provinces have enacted similar legislation, he added.

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