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Oklahoma Dentist May Have Exposed Thousands To Disease

Oklahoma's health department is contacting some 7,000 patients of Tulsa-area dentist Dr. W. Scott Harrington to warn them they may have been exposed to "blood-borne viruses."

Officials are urging former patients to get screened for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV after an investigation of Harrington's office found rusty instruments in use and evidence of unsanitary practices. The dentist had clinics in Tulsa and Owasso.

As The Associated Press reports, "health officials opened their investigation after a patient with no known risk factors tested positive for both hepatitis C and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS." But it's far from clear that anyone was ever sickened because they were treated by Harrington. Oklahoma state health department epidemiologist Kristy Bradley told The AP there's still an active investigation. "I want to stress that this is not an outbreak," she said.

Still, health inspectors aren't leaving anything to chance. They've set up free clinics to test for HIV and hepatitis in Tulsa, and they're urging patients to come in. They've mailed letters to everyone treated over the past seven years, which is as far as the records go back. People treated before 2007 won't get a letter, but they're asked to come in anyway. They've also set up a hotline for people to call with questions.

Susan Rogers, executive director of Oklahoma's Board of Dentistry told CNN that when investigators first learned how the dentist's office was run, "we were just physically kind of sick. I mean, that's how bad [it was] and I've seen a lot of bad stuff over the years."

The Oklahoma dentistry board says Harrington is cooperating with the investigation, and has voluntarily closed his two clinics. Rogers tells KOTV-TV that while it's not uncommon for dentists to be cited for violations, this case is "very, very unusual."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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