Oklahoma Dental Clinic May Have Infected Thousands With HIV And Hepatitis

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Thousands of patients of an Oklahoma dentist may have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis and should be tested immediately, health authorities investigating the matter said on Thursday.

Health officials with the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry on Thursday warned that nearly 7,000 patients who had received care from a Tulsa dentist should undergo testing after investigators discovered the source of one patient´s disease may have started from improperly cleaned instruments at the dental office.

The Board said state and county health inspectors probed Dr. W. Scott Harrington´s practice in Tulsa after a patient with no known risk factors tested positive for hepatitis C and HIV. During the investigation the officials uncovered multiple sterilization issues, including cross-contamination of instruments and the use of a separate, rusty, set of instruments for patients who were known to carry infectious diseases.

Harrington voluntarily shut his practice down when the joint probe began, the Board said in a statement. “The dentist is cooperating with investigators through his attorney,” it said.

The Tulsa Health Department said it would begin mailing notices to the 7,000 patients under Harrington´s care alerting them of possible infections, explaining that they need to seek medical screening for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.

Joyce Baylor, 69, a patient who had a tooth pulled at Harrington´s Tulsa office 18 months ago, said she thought his office looked clean enough. She said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that she plans to submit for a medical test next week to determine whether she picked up an underlying infection from the clinic.

“I’m sure he’s not suffering financially that he can’t afford instruments,” Baylor said.

State epidemiologist Kristy Bradley said it was determined that the initial patient who had been diagnosed with HIV and hepatitis had a dental procedure done about the same time as the exposure started. Upon the investigation of Harrington´s office a number of unsafe practices were uncovered.

“I want to stress that this is not an outbreak. The investigation is still very much in its early stages,” Bradley maintained.

Harrington turned in his license and is facing a hearing on April 19, which could permanently revoke his license, said Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman Kaitlin Snider.

“It’s uncertain how long those practices have been in place,” Snider said. “He’s been practicing for 36 years.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is consulting on the case, and has said situations involving dental clinics are rare. However, a Colorado case last year prompted health officials to alert 8,000 oral patients of possible infection. It wasn´t clear whether anyone was actually infected in that case, said the CDC.

“We’ve only had a handful of dental facilities where we’ve had notifications in the last decade,” said an agency spokeswoman.

Patients who have seen Harrington since 2007 will be notified by letter. Letters will go out to patients who were seen at both Harrington´s Tulsa and Owasso offices. The state health department said they only had information going back as far as 2007; patients before that time may not receive a letter. Testing will be done free of charge at the health department on Saturday, and then again beginning Monday. A hotline has been set up for people with questions.

“As a precaution, and in order to take appropriate steps to protect their health, it is important for these patients to get tested. It should be noted that transmission in this type of occupational setting is rare,” ABC News reported health officials as saying.

Despite this, the Oklahoma Dentistry Board lodged a 17-count complaint against Harrington, saying he was a “menace to the public health by reasons of practicing dentistry in an unsafe or unsanitary manner.”

According to the complaint, the clinic had cleaning procedures in place for the equipment, but needles were re-inserted in drug vials after initial use and the office had no written infection-protection procedure.

Harrington told officials that his staff was in control of sterilization and drug procedures. “They take care of that, I don´t,” the Board quoted him as saying.

He is also accused of letting his assistants perform tasks only a licensed dentist should have done, including administering IV sedation.

Investigators also found a drug vial at one of the clinics that had an expiration date of 1993 and a drug log kept by one assistant showed that morphine had been used in the clinic within the last year despite not receiving any morphine shipments since 2009.