Concerns about HIV, bites said unjustified But bacterial infections, hepatitis another matter

Although medical concerns were raised when Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's right ear during Saturday night's heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas, HIV transmission should not be one of them, doctors say.

fTC The risk of transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through biting is virtually nonexistent, medical experts say. Also, both fighters submitted medical documents citing that they are HIV-negative to the State of Nevada Athletic Commission last month -- a requirement to be licensed to fight in the state. Licenses must be renewed yearly.


However, health experts say hepatitis and bacterial infections are legitimate concerns in biting situations. At this time, only New York and Maryland require hepatitis tests prior to boxing matches. Hypothetically, if Tyson had hepatitis, then the possibility of transmission of the virus would exist.

"It's been documented that hepatitis, especially B, can be transmitted by a bite," said Kenrad Nelson, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. "Other infections have been transmitted by bites."


Various strains of bacteria residing in saliva also can cause infections that pose a danger to bite victims. Nelson said that antibiotics in the penicillin family are most often administered to bite victims. Those antibiotics are often used to attack anaerobic organisms -- those that grow in the absence of oxygen.

"The mouth has bacteria around the teeth, so bite wounds are known to be contaminated with anaerobic organisms," Nelson said. "It's traditional to use antibiotics as soon as possible to prevent infection."

Due to the severity of Holyfield's case -- he had his ear surgically repaired, with plastic surgery still to come -- Nelson said he "would be very surprised if they didn't give him some antibiotic."

The spread of HIV in sports came into focus after professional basketball player Magic Johnson tested positive in 1991 and again after heavyweight boxer Tommy Morrison was shown to be infected in 1996.

Johnson has since retired and Morrison was banned from boxing, a sport in which open wounds are more common than in other athletic activities.

Before Morrison's test, only four states -- Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Arizona -- required AIDS tests for boxers; now, 11 states, including Maryland, require tests of boxers before matches.

But Tyson's bite shouldn't raise concern about AIDS, said Dr. Liza Solomon, director of AIDS administration for the state of Maryland.

"Theoretically, it could happen, but we really haven't seen documented cases of HIV via biting," she said. "We don't think it is much of a risk in the real world.


"It's such a hypothetical question. We have no scientific literature. We are all talking about hypotheticals."

Solomon said it is impossible to say whether the biter or the victim would be at greater risk in such a situation. The possibility of transmission exists if large amounts of blood come into contact with open wounds, but again the chances are minute.

She also said saliva is not an agent associated with the transmission of the HIV virus.

A 26-year-old female reportedly became HIV-positive in 1985 after being bitten by her sister, who was an HIV-positive intravenous drug user. However, that incident involved blood-to-blood contact -- the biter had blood on her teeth, sustained from a punch to the mouth -- rather than the saliva-to-blood contact in the Holyfield-Tyson case.

Pub Date: 7/02/97