Oklahoma Dentist’s Office Exposed Patients to Hepatitis C

The nation’s first transmission of hepatitis C between dental patients was confirmed by Oklahoma state officials on September 18, 2013. Dr. Kristy Bradley, Oklahoma state epidemiologist, said that although dental procedures are generally safe, the finding “reinforces the importance of adhering to strict infection control procedures in dental settings.”   A total of 89 patients of W. Scott Harrington, a Tulsa-area dentist, have tested positive for hepatitis C at state clinics; so far only one case has been directly tied to Harrington’s practice.

Clinic Shut Down

Harrington’s dental offices were shut down by state officials in March 2013 after finding rusty instruments, potentially contaminated drug vials, and improper use of a machine designed to sterilize tools. The investigation found that the offices permitted unlicensed dental assistants to perform IV sedation on patients. The offices did not have policies or procedures for sterilization or infection prevention.

In April, the Tulsa Health Department and Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) sent a letter to over 7,000 patients who had a dental procedure at Harrington’s offices. The letter recommended that all patients get tested for hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Free testing was made available at the OSDH Public Health Laboratory and at other public health facilities throughout the state. A total of 4,202 people were tested at state clinics, while an unknown number of patients received testing from private clinics.

Action Against Harrington

Harrington, who had been a dentist for 36 years, voluntarily surrendered his license and faces a January hearing before the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry. In the complaint filed before the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry, Harrington is accused of being a menace to the public health due to his unsafe and unsanitary dental practice.

Seven of Harrington’s patients filed a class-action lawsuit in Tulsa naming the doctor, his corporation, his medical staff and several pharmaceutical companies as defendants. Five of the seven plaintiffs said in the lawsuit were diagnosed with an infectious disease, which the complaint alleges is due to Harrington’s and the others’ actions. The former patients also said they are at risk of contracting blood-borne pathogens. The lawsuit stated that the plaintiffs “were exposed to contaminated propofol vials and/or equipment not effectively sterilized by autoclave components” at Harrington’s offices, resulting in contraction of infectious diseases.

Tim Harris, the Tulsa district attorney, said that it is unlikely Harrington will face criminal charges at this time. Prosecutors would have to show that Harrington knowingly caused a patient to contract an infectious disease to prove criminal negligence. Based on the evidence collected to date, Harris says it would be difficult to prove that Harrington acted knowingly.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a serious virus infection that can cause liver damage, liver cancer, or death. The damage can be prevented by early treatment, but approximately 70 to 80 percent of the people infected with the virus are not aware of the infection.  Once infected with the hepatitis C virus, nearly 8 in 10 people remain infected for life. A simple blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can determine whether an individual has ever been infected, but only a different, follow-up blood test can determine if a person remains infected. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), only half of people with a positive hepatitis C antibody test had a reported follow-up test. Without the follow-up test, a person will not know if they still have hepatitis C and cannot get the medical care they need. Members of the Baby Boomer generation, people born between 1945 and 1965, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other generations. The CDC recommends a one-time screening of all Baby Boomers for hepatitis C, whether or not they have experienced symptoms.