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Dozens of Okla. dentist’s patients positive for hepatitis

Dental Mouth

(CNN) — They went to the dentist to get a wisdom tooth pulled or perhaps have their jaw realigned. But they may have also contracted a blood-borne virus.

Health officials in Oklahoma are notifying 57 patients who tested positive for hepatitis C and three patients who tested positive for hepatitis B after visiting oral surgeon W. Scott Harrington’s office in Tulsa and a city suburb, according to a joint statement issued Wednesday by the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Tulsa Health Department.

At least one positive HIV result was also reported, but policy prohibits the Oklahoma State Department of Health from releasing the number if it’s less than three.

Health officials stress that it’s not yet clear how many of the positive patients were exposed at Harrington’s office, if any.

“This is a complex investigation,” state epidemiologist Kristy Bradley said in the statement. “The next phase will include more in-depth interviews of persons who test positive to determine the likelihood that their exposure is associated with their dental surgical procedure at the Harrington practice. We will certainly continue to keep the public informed as we learn more.”

More than 3,200 of Harrington’s patients were screened for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C after health investigators found sterilization violations and other infractions at the oral surgeon’s office.

“I will tell you that when … we left, we were just physically kind of sick,” Susan Rogers, executive director of the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry, told CNN earlier. “That’s how bad it was, and I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff over the years.”

The dentistry board launched its probe after one of Harrington’s patients came down with hepatitis C. That patient originally tested positive for HIV, too, but a subsequent test came back negative, the Tulsa Health Department said.

Investigators raised a number of sterilization and “cross-contamination” alarms — such as “unauthorized, unlicensed” employees using IVs to sedate patients and improper handling of needles.

The outward cleanliness of the office belied the mess elsewhere, Rogers said, noting that “just basic universal precautions for blood-borne pathogens” weren’t followed.

Besides being “unlocked and unattended,” the drug cabinet was rife with issues — containing, for example, a drug that expired in 1993, according to the official complaint filed before the state dental board. Other records showed that morphine had been used in patients throughout 2012, even though the dentist had not received a morphine delivery since 2009.

Harrington voluntarily surrendered his dental license on March 20. He will appear at a revocation hearing before the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry on August 16. His attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.

Not all patients who may have contracted a virus have been identified, state health officials said, noting this is the first round of testing results. And the tests used to diagnosis hepatitis and HIV are based on the body’s immune system response to infection, so some results could have come back negative prematurely.

“Persons who are tested prior to six months after exposure and are found to be negative should be tested again at six months after exposure to assure they are negative,” the statement advised.

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that can lead to liver failure and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 70% to 80% of people living with the virus do not have any symptoms. Hepatitis B is a similar liver disease that can range from a mild illness to a serious, chronic condition.

Anyone who was treated at Harrington’s dental practice should contact Oklahoma’s patient information hotline between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. at (918) 595-4500 with questions.

CNN’s Jacque Wilson, Paul Caron and Lateef Mungin contributed to this report.

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