Oklahoma health officials who discovered unsanitary conditions inside a Tulsa oral surgeon's office said Thursday they will consider medical tests for his patients' spouses and sex partners if lab results show his clinics helped spread hepatitis or the virus that causes AIDS.
Though it is rare for infections to spread in a dental practice, the Oklahoma and Tulsa health departments have urged Dr. W. Scott Harrington's 7,000 patients to have their blood analyzed for signs of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. Nearly 1,500 had done so through Wednesday evening.
The Tulsa Health Department said a number of spouses and significant others had submitted for medical testing despite there being no suggestion any infections have been passed on.
"We are right now focusing on patients who have been in Dr. Harrington's chair," spokeswoman Kaitlin Snider said. Only after attempting to determine whether Harrington's office was the source of the infection will the board may consider recommending spouses or sex partners for tests, too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have logged only three times when infectious diseases spread in a dental setting.
The Oklahoma Dentistry Board lodged a 17-count complaint against Harrington last week, saying his clinics at Tulsa and Owasso ignored basic safety practices required by state law and common sense. His lawyer said in a Thursday statement that Harrington's "previous record with the dental board is impeccable."
"He is taking the recent allegations very seriously and is fully cooperating with the Oklahoma Dental Board," lawyer James K. Secrest II said. "At this time, out of respect for his patients and the sensitivity of the issues, Dr. Harrington will make no further comment on this matter."
According to the Oklahoma Dentistry Board, Harrington's practice had a number of patients known to have infectious diseases. John Molinari of Ann Arbor, Mich., an infectious disease control expert for the American Dental Association, cautioned that if a Harrington patient does test positive for hepatitis or HIV, it would not mean the virus has spread. Lab work could trace the virus' path.
"Where could they have gotten this infection? He was treating known infectious patients. It won't translate automatically that they contracted this in the practice," he said.
Harrington's office looked sharp, but the state Dentistry Board said Harrington's employees used dirty equipment, including rusty instruments on patients known to have infections; reused drug vials without changing needles and had assistants sedate patients without a license. Drugs on the premises were outdated and sterilization equipment hadn't been certified in working order for at least six years.
Health officials inspected the oral surgeon's office while investigating the case of one of his patients. Initially, health officials said the patient had tested positive for hepatitis C and HIV but later said the patient had only a hepatitis C infection. Subsequently, the health departments recommended Harrington's patients be screened for three viruses that are spread through blood — HIV, hepatitis C and B. Officials noted it was very rare for such viruses to be transmitted through dental work, and the screenings were precautionary.
"Unfortunately, this just washes horribly over the whole dental profession, which has done a very good job in infection control," Molinari said. "One outlier is so unfortunate. It is such an outlier in the standard of care that it stands out."