Understanding the Connection Between 'Vampire Facials' and HIV Infections

04 May 2024 2561
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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported what is believed to be the first documented cases of HIV spread through cosmetic injections. Three women, who all received 'vampire facials' at an unlicensed Albuquerque, New Mexico spa, have been diagnosed with the virus.

The initial HIV infection was identified in a woman in her 40s in 2018. The woman had no known HIV risk factors and the only potential exposure seems to be from the needles used during the cosmetic procedure. Subsequently, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) and CDC identified two more women whose HIV infections could be linked to the spa in spring and summer of 2018. The spa was shut down in fall 2018 after an inspection revealed unsafe infection control practices.

The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that these are the first known HIV infections associated with non-sterile cosmetic injection services. The report points to the potential for new HIV transmission routes in people with no known HIV risk factors and encourages medical and public health staff members to consider cosmetic injections as a possible HIV transmission method. Despite these cases seeming to be an isolated instance, the safety of vampire facials and similar procedures is being questioned.

A vampire facial involves a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) microneedling procedure. A client’s blood is drawn, the plasma and cells are separated, and then the PRP is reintroduced into their face using sterile sing-use disposable or multi-use equipment. Dermatologists commonly use PRP with microneedling, but the term 'vampire facial' is more frequently used by patients and med spas.

Ideally, PRP with microneedling poses no risk of HIV transmission because patients are only exposed to their own blood. The key is the sterilization and correct use of the equipment, according to Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at The Mount Sinai Hospital. However, the CDC's report found that spa employees were reusing disposable equipment designed for single-use, which may have led to the HIV transmission among subsequent patients. The investigation also revealed unsafe practices like unlabeled blood tubes left on counters and unwrapped syringes in trash cans.

Providers should always use sterile instruments and strictly follow safe injection guidelines. Zeichner emphasized that patients should also be actively involved in ensuring their own safety during these procedures. This includes confirming all materials are new and sterilized, and ensuring blood vials are properly labeled.

Dermatologists discourage people from avoiding PRP microneedling procedures because of this incident but stress the importance of seeking reputable professionals for these procedures. According to Ife J. Rodney, MD, founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics, "Don’t just go somewhere random because you get a cheaper price."

Experts agree that while PRP skin rejuvenation can provide excellent results, safety and effectiveness must always be prioritized.