Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna's random injury from a hypodermic needle serves as a cautionary public health tale for volunteers of the annual Great American River Clean Up, he said Friday.
Serna and his staff were bagging rubbish at Discovery Park during this year's event Sept. 15 when a syringe bent at a 90-degree angle penetrated his leather glove and pricked his right thumb, drawing blood.
"I got a quick lesson on what happens after being pricked by a hypodermic needle," he said. "From this personal experience, there's a very good reminder to people to exercise extreme caution."
Serna described himself as "laserlike focused on getting the American River safer and cleaner" and noted that in no way did he want to dissuade volunteers from participating in future cleanups. More than 2,000 people collected about 14,000 pounds of trash from riverbanks two weeks ago.
But by example, he said, he hopes to call attention to the public health hazards embedded in such well-meaning efforts, as well as the continuing need to vigorously enforce dusk-to-dawn restrictions against camping by the riverfront's homeless population.
What happened to Serna is hardly a common occurrence, thanks to precautions already taught by cleanup crew bosses, said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye.
Last year, about 214 people in the Sacramento region sought emergency care for what public health officials routinely call "needle sticks," according to data from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. The injuries tended to occur on the hands or fingers, the agency reported.
The patients crossed all age groups, but needle pricks happened much more frequently among adults than among children. Nearly all the injuries last year in the Sacramento region resulted in treatment followed by immediate release, according to the data.
Up and down California, about 5,100 people went to hospital emergency rooms for accidents caused by hypodermic needles.
Typically, patients who've been pricked by syringes learn that the risk of infection is slim, Kasirye said.
Mercy hospital officials told Serna his chances of contracting disease from the accident are very small, because the syringe was an insulin needle with a tiny aperture and there was a lack of evidence that it had been used recently.
Still, patients may elect, as did Serna, to be treated with the anti-HIV, anti-hepatitis prophylactic drug Atripla.
The drug, manufactured by Merck & Co., was originally targeted toward HIV-positive patients or those exposed to unsafe sex. Now, however, it is widely prescribed for patients who may have experienced needle punctures.
Like any drug, Atripla does have some side effects, including nausea, depression, extreme fatigue, malaise and viral infection symptoms.
Serna, now entering his third week of treatment, said the side effects "hit him like a freight train" after he'd been taking Atripla for five or six days. He has 10 days to go. He said he's experiencing exhaustion, some depression and flulike symptoms.
Hospital officials told Serna that he will have to undergo six months of periodic testing before they can rule out any kind of infection.
Serna, 44, said he felt compelled to tell his story out of concern for public safety.
"This happened near park benches, near where children were playing – near where I rode my dirt bike as a kid," Serna said. "We have to make sure our parks are safe for public use."
He said that while Mercy's health care professionals went the extra mile to help with the unease a patient in his position might feel, "there's still a level of stress."
Just after the injury occurred, Serna said, "Right then and there, you are shocked by the truth of the matter that you are stuck by a hypodermic needle that you're pretty certain was used for illicit purposes."