Weird Medicine

HIV Transmission From Manicure Instrument Highlights Little-Known Risks For Infection

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A 22-year-old woman was diagnosed with advanced HIV after sharing manicure equipment over a decade ago. kizzzbeth, CC BY-SA 2.0

A 22-year-old woman was diagnosed with advanced HIV infection after having used the same manicure instruments as an older cousin, according to a new case study. Though the risks posed by HIV-infected people remain as low as they’ve always been, the case reveals a new mode of transmission for the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already outline several mechanisms by which HIV spreads, including some common routes like sharing needles and having sex with someone HIV-positive, and other less frequently talked about, like being bitten by someone with HIV or eating food that was pre-chewed by someone with HIV. Manicure utensils are not part of this list.

Admittedly, some don’t see a need for it. “This transmission of HIV by shared manicure equipment is a very rare event that should serve not to make people fear HIV or contact with HIV-infected people,” said Dr. Brian Foley, of the HIV Sequence Database at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in a statement.

Blood analyses suggest the woman contracted the virus roughly a decade ago. Based on follow-up genetic tests of the woman and her cousin, scientists determined the two patients shared a common viral ancestor, dating back to roughly 11 years ago, that coincided with the cousin sharing the instruments with someone else. During this time, the researchers claim, the cousin must not have been virally suppressed.

As Foley points out, the risks of new infection sources are still decidedly low. HIV transfers from one person to the next through bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, and rectal fluids, and must enter directly into a person’s bloodstream or come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue. Manicure equipment is simply a unique means for transmission, in the same way a dinner fork could serve the same purpose. Both are highly unlikely in any case.

The case should “make people aware that sharing any utensils with possible blood-blood contact, such as needles used for drugs, tattoos, or acupuncture can result in transmission of viruses such as hepatitis C (HCV) and HIV,” Foley said. “In addition, there are other common viruses and bacteria that can also be spread by sharing equipment without proper disinfection between users.”

The truth is, HIV is an easy scapegoat if people want a reason to be afraid. Despite the mountain of research that says life with HIV is getting easier and longer, the some 1.1 million people who are HIV-positive in the U.S. still give others pause. They may fear transmission through shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. As the CDC explains, however, even intimate behaviors like kissing can only transmit the virus if both people have exposed sores in their mouths. Most people with HIV are on antiretroviral therapy to begin with, reducing the chance of infection even further.

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid of your manicurist. But if you want to be on the safe side, make sure your equipment is sterilized first.

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