The unhygienic practices of a dentist in Tulsa, Okla., forced him to close his offices while health officials investigate and test about 7,000 people who had visited him since 2007.
Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Health began sending letters Friday to those patients, urging them to get tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. The dentist, Dr. W. Scott Harrington, has offices in Tulsa and Owasso, a northern Tulsa suburb. Investigators say they found numerous health and safety violations at the Tulsa office, including nonsterilized and rusty instruments.
So far, only one patient has been confirmed as having been infected - with hepatitis C - after being treated by Harrington. While officials stressed how important it was for patients to be tested, they cautioned that it was premature to characterize the situation as a widespread public health crisis. They said the transmission of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C in a setting like a dentist's office was unusual.
"This is certainly going to be very alarming for those patients of this dental practice, but we're trying to assure folks that this is not an outbreak investigation," said Leslea Bennett-Webb, the spokeswoman for the Health Department. "We know based on scientific investigations in the past that acquiring these kinds of infectious diseases in a dental practice is very rare."
Health officials have records for Harrington's patients only since 2007, so they do not know how many others had visited him before then and might have been exposed to the viruses. They also do not know how long the improper practices were in place, so were recommending that anyone who had ever been treated by Harrington be tested.
Harrington, 64, has been a state-licensed dentist since 1974 and an oral surgeon since 1977. He told investigators he had treated a large number of patients known to be infectious disease carriers.
He has voluntarily closed his two offices and surrendered his dental license for 30 days. He could have his license revoked after a hearing on April 19.
Harrington and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
In a 17-count complaint filed Thursday by the dentistry board, Harrington was accused of being "a menace to the public health" by using unsafe and unsanitary practices. The complaint accused him of using drug vials for more than one patient and keeping expired vials; failing to keep suitable records of dangerous drugs; leaving his drug cabinet unlocked and unsupervised; and allowing dental assistants to sedate patients though they were not licensed to do so.
Inspectors this month also found two separate sets of instruments at the Tulsa office, each cleaned by a different method - one for those patients known to have infectious diseases and one for those not believed to have such diseases, the complaint stated. The proper approach, officials said, is for all instruments to be handled as if they contained viruses.