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Dentist May Have Exposed 7,000 Patients to HIV, Hepatits in Oklahoma

Update Date: Mar 28, 2013 06:59 PM EDT

Thousands of people in Oklahoma may have been infected with HIV and hepatitis after health officials discovered evidence that a dentist in Tulsa was not properly sterilizing the tools and equipment he used on his patients, despite knowing that several of them carried the viruses.

The Oklahoma and Tulsa health departments said Thursday that approximately 7,000 patients treated at clinics operated by Dr. W. Scott Harrington may have been exposed to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"It's uncertain how long those practices have been in place," said Kaitlin Snider, a spokeswoman for the Tulsa Health Department, according to the Associated Press. "He's been practicing for 36 years."

Authorities said they found numerous violations of health and safety laws and major violations of the State Dental Act during an investigation into Harrington's practice.

According to a statement released by the Tulsa Health Department, Harrington has voluntarily discontinued practicing and is cooperating with investigators.

Officials said that letters have been sent out to approximately 7,000 people who have gone to Harrington's clinics in Tulsa and suburban Owasso since 2007.

While it is rare for infections to spread in occupational settings, the health agencies said it is important that patients get tested.

According to Fox News, The Dentistry Board says Harrington and his staff told investigators that a "high population of known infectious disease carrier patients" received dental care from him.

According to the complaint the device used to sterilize all instruments in Harrington's clinics wasn't working properly.  The complaint said that a test is supposed to be performed monthly and sent to a lab to determine that the equipment was successfully sterilizing instruments.  However, investigators found that "no such test had ever been performed in the 6 years one dental assistant had been working at the office," according to the complaint.

According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, HIV cannot survive a few seconds outside of the body.  However, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can survive outside of the body on surfaces for days.

However, there are laws healthcare professionals must follow to prevent patients from indirectly infecting each other. For example, law requires all medical tools and devices to be sterilized after use and between patients to kill any infectious bacteria or viruses.

Investigators also found that Harrington used outdated drugs, after finding one vial this year had an expiration date of 1993.

Executive director of Oklahoma's Board of Dentistry Susan Rogers said that as a dentist, Harrington routinely does invasive procedures that involve "pulling teeth, open wounds, open blood vessels," according to Fox News.

"This is an unprecedented event," Rogers said. "To my knowledge, this has never happened before as far as a public notification of a (hepatitis C) case involving a dental office."

Officials said that patients infected with hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV may not experience any immediate symptoms of the disease, which is why it is very important that all patients of Harrington get tested. 

"Hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV are serious medical conditions and infected patients may not have outward symptoms of the disease for many years," officials said in a statement. "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. "

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