At least three women infected with HIV after 'vampire facials'

At least three women were infected with HIV during “vampire facial” cosmetic procedures at an unlicensed spa in Albuquerque, federal officials said Thursday. It is the first time HIV transmission through cosmetic injection services has been documented, they said.

The three were part of a group of five people who shared very similar HIV strains, four of whom had undergone a procedure called platelet-rich plasma microneedling at the spa. The fifth individual, a man, had a sexual relationship with one of the women.

Investigators do not yet know the precise origin of the contamination. A 2018 HIV diagnosis in a client who reported having no behavioral risk factors led to a public health investigation when the woman said she received a cosmetic needle treatment, called platelet-rich plasma facial microneedling.

An inspection of the spa found unlabeled blood tubes on the kitchen counter, others stored with food in a refrigerator and discarded syringes in drawers and trash cans.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the facility also appeared to reuse disposable equipment intended for single use.

The report comes on the heels of an announcement by health officials earlier this month that they are investigating a number of illnesses linked to counterfeit or improperly injected Botox containing high amounts of botulinum toxin, which is used in small doses to smooth wrinkles.

“If people are worried – and some friends have asked me, 'What would you do?' — the first step is to verify that your provider is licensed to provide cosmetic injection services,” said Anna M. Stadelman-Behar, a CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the HIV report.

“If they are licensed, then they have undergone infection control training, know the correct procedures and are required by law to follow proper infection control practices.”

Overall, he noted, the risk of infection during cosmetic procedures is generally low. “If you have any doubts, go get an HIV test,” Dr. Stadelman-Behar said. “The CDC recommends that all adults between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once as part of routine medical care and know their status.”

So-called vampire facials involve drawing a patient's blood, placing it in a centrifuge to separate the platelet-rich plasma, and then using short, very thin needles to pierce the skin.

This is said to stimulate the skin to produce elastic and collagen and create openings for plasma, which is applied topically to help the skin repair. The procedure is promoted to reduce signs of aging, acne scars and sun damage.

The New Mexico Department of Health, which was made aware of the unusual HIV infection in 2018 when the first woman was diagnosed, began an investigation into the spa. Over time, officials identified four former clients and one sexual partner who were diagnosed with HIV between 2018 and 2023, despite reporting few risks associated with the infection, such as injection drug use, blood transfusions, blood or sexual contact with a new partner.

The spa closed in the fall of 2018, shortly after the first unusual infection was identified. But the investigation, as well as attempts to inform clients and former clients who may have been exposed to HIV, were hampered by the spa's poor documentation.

Eventually, investigators were able to piece together a list of names and phone numbers from clients' signed consent forms, handwritten appointment records and telephone contacts. They identified 59 clients at risk of infection, including 20 who received “vampire facial treatments” and 39 who received other services, such as Botox, between the spring and fall of 2018.

Public health investigators also reached out to the community about the risks to former spa customers. Overall, between 2018 and 2023, 198 former spa clients and their sexual partners underwent HIV testing.

Five people carrying very similar viruses were confirmed to have spa-related cases. But two of them – a woman who had been a client and her male partner – had advanced HIV disease which, according to investigators, was most likely the result of previous infections, before the spa treatments.

The report said two people in the cluster had tested positive during rapid HIV tests taken when they applied for life insurance, including one who was tested in 2016, before receiving treatment at the spa, and one in the fall of 2018.

However, only one had been informed of the positive test result and the diagnosis was confirmed by a GP in 2019.

Investigators said they never identified the exact route of contamination at the spa during the spring and summer of 2018.

“When we did the inspection of the spa, it was clear that the needles were being reused, as were the blood samples,” Dr. Stadelman-Behar said. “We found vials without labels, without date of birth, without date of collection, which had been punctured multiple times.”

He advised people who receive these types of cosmetic procedures to ask providers to open syringes and vials in front of them and to make sure that when blood is drawn, the vials are properly labeled with their name, date of birth and date of collection . .

“But the most important takeaway is that licensing is extremely important,” he said.

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