Over 11k dental patients in Sydney at risk of HIV, hepatitis exposure over poor cleaning

Reuters / John Gress
More than 11,000 dental patients in Sydney are in danger of having contracted HIV or other blood-transmitted diseases due to improper equipment cleaning throughout the city.

The ongoing probe has seen six dentists’ registration suspended and one dental practice shut down.

At the end of last year, patient complaints led to an investigation into the local dental clinic network Gentle Dentist, and infection breaches were discovered. In particular, Dr. Robert Starkenburg’s practice was closed in December.

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The dentist told Fairfax Media outlet that he was “very sorry,” and that his age – 75 – had made it hard for him to follow the changing cleaning regulations.

“In the last eight years, they have upgraded the protocols a lot. I was a little lax on getting the latest protocols ... [but] I have [since then] taken a couple of courses and taken steps to rectify the problem,” he said.

In February, it was revealed that the breaches in cleaning and sterilization had been more severe than considered.

Patients of several dentists’ offices were instructed to get HIV, hepatitis B and C testing.

New South Wales Health’s director of health protection, Jeremy McAnulty, stressed that the risks are “low”, and there have been no cases of blood-borne diseases so far.

Patients were written to individually, he added.

Over the past decade, some 11,250 patients have had invasive dental procedures at the Gentle Dentist, and are now all being tested.

Meanwhile, other Gentle Dentist clinics remain open.

Dr. Chan, the owner the enterprise, employs 21 dentists in two surgeries. He declined to comment on the situation to Fairfax Media.

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The representative of the Dental Council of New South Wales, Shane Fryer, told the Guardian that the medics need better training in sterilization and cleaning.

“While we believe the vast majority of dentists in New South Wales are complying with the guidelines, we recognize there may be a need for a greater education within the profession <…> The risk, if indeed there is a risk, is low, the vast majority of dental practitioners do the right thing, they’re professional healthcare providers and they abide by the guidelines,” he said.

The dentists’ union, the Australian Dental Association, echoed the statement, saying the hazard of contracting blood-transmitted infections at the dentist’s was “extremely low”.

Association President Deb Crockrell, however, said that they take infection control very seriously.

“There are very rare cases. We have nearly 4,000 members in NSW and the ACT, performing more than 6 million procedures each year. The overall standard of care is outstanding. The risk of patients being infected by blood-borne diseases is extremely low.”