Tulsa, OK – Three former patients of a Tulsa dentist, who was found to use unsanitary, biologically contaminated equipment and questionable procedure practices in his clinic, have tested positive for HIV, according to local reports released Thursday.
Following a probe into the operations of a local dental office in March, Oklahoma health officials sent notices to over 7,000 former patients of oral surgeon Dr. Wayne Scott Harrington. The notices suggested anyone who had patronized Harrington’s oral and facial surgery clinic to seek testing for possibly contracting hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) while under his care.
Last year, a Colorado oral surgeon was accused of reusing needles and syringes, prompting a similar investigation and letters to nearly 8,000 patients.
Officials became aware when an otherwise healthy patient tested positive for hepatitis C after receiving dental work. As a result of the investigation, revealing the unsafe conditions of Harrington’s practice – unlicensed employees administering IVs, reused needles, rusted and filthy unsterilized tools, and providing expired medications like morphine – the facility was closed and Harrington was forced to surrender his license.
The American Dental Association (ADA) divides instruments into three levels. Critical instruments are used to penetrate soft tissue and bone. These include forceps, scalpels, bone chisels, scalers, and surgical burrs. Semi-critical instruments do not penetrate soft tissue or bone, but do come in contact with the mucous membranes or non-intact skin (i.e. the inside of the mouth and open wounds). These items include mirrors, reusable impression trays, and amalgam condensers. Non-critical instruments come in contact only with intact skin and do not require being sanitized, such as a blood pressure cuff.
Critical and most semi-critical instruments require sterilization in an autoclave. In Harrington’s case, it was discovered the autoclave had not functioned properly for several years and was not routinely tested.
Since suggesting regular testing for communicable blood-borne viruses, the Tulsa Health Department says, of the nearly 4,000 screened thus far, three patients have tested positive for HIV – a lentivirus which precedes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), causing a progressive failure of the immune system, followed by life-threatening opportunistic infections and cancers. Nearly 70 have tested positive for hepatitis C and four for hepatitis B. Given the germinating period of the pathogens, the number of infected could still increase.
The public health response to the possible exposure to HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C has cost nearly $700,000 so far in testing.
Criminal charges have yet to be levied against the dentist, as no decision has been made by the county prosecutor. First and foremost, the goal is to do a thorough investigation before applying potential criminal charges. However, patients do intend to pursue lawsuits.
It could be argued some of those who tested positive for the diseases may have contracted them elsewhere as these viruses typically spread through intravenous drug use or unprotected sex, not occupational settings – further complicating the state and federal investigation.
Dr. Harrington has practiced dentistry for nearly three decades, but because his records only go back to 2007. Therefore, the full extent of damage he caused may never be known. The Oklahoma Board of Dentistry filed a 17-count complaint citing Harrington as “a menace to the public health by reasons of practicing dentistry in an unsafe or unsanitary manner.”
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