Bloodborne Pathogens Are Not Merely Limited to HIV and AIDS

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CellsBloodborne pathogens are microorganisms that exist within the blood and can be transmitted through unprotected contact with contaminated blood. There are a significant number of bloodborne pathogens currently known in the medical community; however, the average layperson tends to associate the term only with HIV and AIDS. In this article we will cover a number of bloodborne pathogens. Read on to find out more about the vast variety of bloodborne pathogens that are recognized by today’s medical community.

HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus

Since HIV is one of the most recognized types of bloodborne pathogens we will cover it first. HIV is a particularly concerning virus for individuals in the general population as well as in the medical community due to the various methods of exposure that are possible. HIV can not only be transferred through the blood but it can also be transferred through semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Infected immune cells are transferred with the virus intact as are free virus particles, exposing individuals who were previously uninfected to the incurable immunodeficiency virus. HIV causes AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in which the immune system of the infected individual begins to fail and as a result viruses that would normally be destroyed by a healthy immune system are allowed to run rampant within the body. In addition, individuals with HIV are unable to fight the cancerous cells that are present in every living human being and as a result these cancer cells are able to thrive and spread. Most commonly HIV is spread through the use of contaminated needles, drinking of breast milk, transmission from mother to child during the birthing process and the practice of unsafe sex.

Statistics on HIV and AIDS

While awareness of HIV has spread around the world it is still rampant in countries like Africa where unsafe sex is commonly practiced. Within more developed nations such as the United States many steps are taken to help to prevent the spread of HIV through a focus on practicing safe sex as well as the screening of blood products utilized in blood transfusion procedures. HIV was discovered in 1981 and currently is estimated to affect some .6% of the worldwide population. Current treatments for HIV include the use of antiretroviral drugs which have proven to reduce mortality and morbidity in HIV infection. The progression from HIV to AIDS does not follow a specific timeline, individuals infected with HIV will almost always go on to develop AIDS within ten years of their infection; however this is not always the case. As with HIV, AIDS is treated with drugs that can greatly expand the expected life expectancy of the individual infected. With treatment individuals with AIDS can live longer than five years, without treatment death is generally imminent within a year.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is an infectious illness that attacks the liver and causes inflammation as a result of the hepatitis B virus. It is estimated that around one quarter of the worldwide population has been infected with the hepatitis B infection at some point in time and a number of individuals are carriers of the virus. Hepatitis B is transmitted through a number of bodily fluids, not just blood. Hepatitis B can also be contracted through semen and vaginal fluid and it has also been detected in other bodily fluids such as tears, urine and saliva; however, concentrations of the infection do not appear to be high enough in these fluids as to cause a significant threat. As with HIV, one of the most common means of transmission of the virus is through the birthing process as infected cells are passed from mother to child, but transfusions, dialysis and tattooing are also common means of infection. Contrary to popular belief hepatitis B cannot be spread through breast-feeding, kissing, coughing, sharing cups or sneezing. While hepatitis B rarely causes death it can cause a number of rather unpleasant side effects from the inflammation of the live including vomiting, jaundice and sometimes death. Without appropriate treatment, hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis of the liver as well as cancer of the liver which can lead to death. For most cases of hepatitis B no treatment is required and with rest and good nutrition the virus will clear up of its own accord; however, in a few cases treatment with antiretroviral drugs is required in order to completely overcome the illness. There is currently a vaccination to guard against hepatitis B; administration of this vaccination to infants within twelve hours of their birth to a mother with hepatitis B reduces their risk of contracting the illness by 90%.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is another infectious disease that affects the liver; however, unlike hepatitis B, it often presents with few symptoms but can become extremely disabling. As the hepatitis C virus goes on to attack the liver scarring often results and leads to cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer and varices. Hepatitis C is spread through exposure to infected blood and while it can be treated with medication only around 51 to 80% of individuals treated will be cured. For approximately 15% of people; however, infection with hepatitis C will not persist after the initial infection. Unfortunately for those individuals who go on to experience hepatitis C that does not respond to treatment, the resulting liver scarring results in the need for a liver transplant. Even with a liver transplant however, an individual with hepatitis C will experience a reoccurrence of the infection after their transplant which makes it particularly difficult to procure donors for these individuals. It is approximated that some 180 million individuals across the globe are currently infected with hepatitis C and there is not currently any vaccine against hepatitis C.


Syphilis is considered to be a bloodborne pathogen in the respect that it can be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy or during the birthing process. Syphilis is most commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse however. There are four stages of Syphilis; primary, secondary, latent and tertiary, depending upon which of these four stages an individual is experiencing their symptoms will differ.  Syphilis generally begins with the appearance of a chancre sore that appears in the site where exposure began, this is usually followed by swelling of the lymph nodes. Many individuals ignore this initial stage of Syphilis and once the chancre sore heals they believe that whatever the infection was has healed itself, this is not the case. As an infected individual believes that they have begun to heal the virus continues to run rampant through the body, as this occurs individuals may begin to experience a lack of appetite, a headache, general achiness and a rash. After the symptoms of secondary Syphilis disappear an individual enters a phase of latent Syphilis in which there are no symptoms but the disease can still be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her child. The final stage of Syphilis may occur as long as 50 years after the latent stage of Syphilis; however, by this point the infection (caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum) has run its course through the body. Symptoms of tertiary Syphilis include anemia, ulcers which done heal, liver disease, bone pain, fever, lack of mental functioning if the nervous system is affected and heart disease. The most common method of diagnosing Syphilis is through a blood test at which time the infected individual is treated with intramuscular penicillin G or ceftriaxone. While Syphilis was considered to be a considerable threat before the widespread availability of penicillin, the current availability of the drug as well as widespread awareness of Syphilis has greatly reduced the number of reported incidences of this bloodborne pathogen. As of 1999 it was approximated that some 12 million individuals had been infected at some point by Syphilis. A correlation has been found however between areas with increasing rates of HIV infection and areas with increasing rates of Syphilis infection, this is believed to be a direct consequence of unprotected sex. There is currently no vaccination to prevent Syphilis; however practicing safe sex is one of the best ways to prevent infection with Syphilis.


Malaria is an infectious disease carried by mosquitoes and is prevalent in tropical regions and subtropical regions. Perhaps one of the most recognized areas affected by malaria is Sub-Saharan Africa; however, the disease is also prevalent in the Americas and Asia. Parasites are injected in to the affected individual from a mosquito affected by a protozoan; these parasites can be observed in blood samples taken from those affected by malaria. As the malaria parasites multiply within the red blood cells infected individuals will begin to experience a headache and fever and as infections worsen the result can be coma or death. The most common means of preventing malaria is to utilize mosquito nets to prevent infected mosquitoes from biting but many individuals also make use of insect repellants to destroy mosquitoes before they can bite. There are currently two types of prophylactic treatments for individuals traveling to countries where malaria outbreaks are prevalent; however, there is not currently a vaccine available to provide long term protection from the disease. According to 2010 data from the World Health Organization there are over 225 million cases of malaria each year with around 781,000 individuals dying as a result of their infection with the disease. The most common area where these deaths occur is in sub-Saharan Africa where current campaigns aim to provide mosquito nets to every family in an effort to reduce this number of malaria related deaths. Without taking action the cycle of malaria infection will continue as mosquitoes bite infected individuals and continue to spread the infection from the infected human to an uninfected human. It should also be noted that malaria can be spread through blood transfusions although this does not occur as often as infection through mosquito bites.


Leptospirosis has a number of other names by which it is recognized including: canicola fever, canefield fever, Weil’s disease, Weil’s syndrome, nanukayami fever, Rat Catcher’s Yellows, 7-Day Fever, Pretibial fever and Fort Bragg fever. Leptospirosis is caused when humans, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are infected by the Leptospira bacteria. Infection by these bacteria can result in redness and increase of temperature in the hands, nephritis, jaundice and enlargement of the spleen. Humans are not commonly infected with the Leptospirosis bacteria; however, it is recognized by the medical community for being the most commonly transmitted disease between animals and humans. The most common method of transmission of Leptospirosis is exposure to infected standing water allowing the bacteria to pass in to the bloodstream through cuts on the skin or the mucous membranes of the body or the eyes. Most commonly this standing water is infected by animal urine passed by an animal already infected with the bacteria. As long as the bacteria passed through an infected animal’s urine remains in a moist atmosphere it is capable of being contracted by other animals as well as humans. Leptospirosis transmission is not limited to urine however, it should also be noted that this bacteria can be spread through semen, blood and other bodily fluids. Leptospirosis infection causes a wide range of symptoms including flu-like symptoms, meningitis, liver damage, jaundice and kidney failure. It takes approximately 4 days to two weeks for symptoms of leptospirosis to present in humans, the infection is diagnosed by the presence of the Leptospira microorganism in the blood of the infected individual. Individuals who are traveling to areas where leptospirosis is prevalent can be treated with a prophylaxis of Doxycycline; however individuals already infected with the bacteria require stronger doses of aetiotropic drugs. While there are currently vaccinations to protect dogs against the contraction of Leptospirosis, there is not currently a vaccination available to protect humans.

Bloodborne Pathogens Video: Leptospirosis

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a brain disease that cannot be cured and is considered to be fatal. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is most commonly associated with mad cow disease in that the disease itself is thought to be caused by mad cow disease but is specific to humans. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a particularly devastating disease as it passes through an infected individual creating holes in brain tissue that gives the brain a sponge like texture. There are currently three variants of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease known as: sporadic, variant and familial. Unlike a number of the bloodborne pathogens already discussed, the first signs of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are severe and include memory loss, hallucinations, personality changes, dementia that develops at an incredible rate, lack of coordination, lack of balance, jerky movements, impairment of speech, seizures and rigid posture. Individuals that contract sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can often succumb to the disease in a matter of weeks, in other individuals the disease may last years; however, most commonly an individual that contracts Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease will die within six months of the initial symptoms of the disease. All of the recognized symptoms of this brain disease result from the destruction of brain tissue and after death examination of an infected individual’s brain tissue shows the presence of holes in brain tissue where nerve cells would previously have been.

The cause of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the presence of a specific prion which causes proteins within the brain tissue to refold and continue to refold until the cells that are affected by the disease create a vast amount of insoluble protein which inevitably kills these cells.  Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can result through the presence of the disease in harvested human brain material as well as other material such as corneal grafts, dural grafts, electrode implants and immunoglobulin’s. Individuals have also contracted Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease through the use of human growth hormone that has been taken from human donors affected by the disease. In 2004 research found that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease could potentially be transmitted through blood transfusions, it was this discovery that led to increased restrictions on blood donation. Individuals that have spent a specific period of time in countries known for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease outbreaks are now banned from blood donation in a number of countries; however, there is not currently a test to screen donors for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which means that blood banks rely upon honesty of donors in the screening process to weed out potential Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease infected donors.

Other Bloodborne Pathogens

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Syphilis, malaria, Leptospirosis and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are just a sampling of bloodborne pathogens out there. There are an incredible number of pathogens that were not included in this article including but not limited to: Non A, Non B Hepatitis, Babesiosis, Brucellosis, Arboviral infections, Relapsing fever, Human T-lymphotrophic Virus Type 1 and Viral hemorrhagic fever. In addition there are also a number of unidentified bloodborne pathogens that have yet to be studied in the scientific community.

Can We Learn From Bloodborne Pathogens?

The topic of bloodborne pathogens is certainly not a particularly positive one; however, there are a few advantages to studying the existence of these pathogens. Namely, research conducted on a number of existing bloodborne pathogens reveals the inner workings of a number of components of the systems within the human body. These studies not only allow scientists to better understand how specific systems within our bodies work but they also often reveal correlating information that can be applied to other studies. For example future research on hepatitis C may reveal a connection to other immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis. A great many scientific discoveries are the result of investigations in to other aspects of human health and existing disease. So while a large number of the bloodborne pathogens mentioned above prove to be fatal, it is hoped that while on the path to a cure for any one of these diseases further information can be garnered on a number of pathogens that work in a similar mode within the human body. Hopefully someday there will be a cure for every one of these devastating diseases but until then scientists and researchers can only hope to keep on learning from them and applying that knowledge in multiple areas of human health.

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You list syphilis as being caused by a virus. This is not correct, it is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. Please correct this.

Alex, you are indeed correct. We have fixed this in the article. Thanks for sharing and helping us keep our content as accurate as possible!

Very cool graphic on the hepatitis B virus, and some really good information. Props to Amy for doing some solid research. I just signed up to your newsletter and am looking forward to learning more about body and mind! One question, however, it appears that the images from the articles aren’t appearing in the email newsletter – maybe it’s a problem with my PC.

Thanks for the kind words about the article! We appreciate you coming by to read Exploring Life’s Mysteries. In regards to the images not working, are you referring to the RSS feed? If you could please let us know more details then we can look into fixing the issue. Thanks so much!

Thank you for the kind words. I truly believe that it is important to become educated on concerns that could affect any one of us at some time in our life. My mother is a nurse and you wouldn’t believe how little many patients know about bloodborn pathogens and just how they can be transmitted and what their symptoms are. Hopefully you found the information in this article helpful as well!