2Just yesterday, in July 2015, a shocking news story broke out in Sydney. Reports revealed that as many as 12,000 individuals were urged to undergo testing for HIV and Hepatitis. The reason? The dental clinics where they had received treatment were under scrutiny for alleged “poor hygiene practices.”
It seems that these dentists were accused of employing substandard cleaning and sterilization methods. One of the dentists, however, claimed that the complaint was lodged by a disgruntled patient with whom he had a disagreement and who wanted to ruin his practice.
As a result, many of us are holding our breath, anxiously awaiting the test results of these patients, while simultaneously postponing our own dental appointments.
This narrative is becoming all too familiar. The internet is rife with stories of potential HIV infection scares stemming from dental visits. Here are just a couple of examples:
- In 2013, a dentist in Scotland tested positive for HIV, leading to 3,000 of his patients being called back for HIV testing.
- In 2014, a woman named Amy Duffield tragically died from a viral heart infection following a visit to her dentist, Dr. D’Mello. It was later discovered that he had “poor hygiene practices,” which is an understatement. He didn’t change gloves between patients, used the same equipment and gloves for 32 years, and even stored his dental equipment in the restroom! Over 20,000 of his patients were asked to return for HIV and hepatitis testing.
It’s worth noting that even in such alarming scenarios, the use of Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) could have potentially reduced the risk of HIV infection.
Despite these alarming stories, there’s a silver lining. While thousands of patients have had to endure the stress and anxiety of an HIV test, the fact remains that none of them tested positive for HIV.
So is it really possible to get infected with HIV from your dentist?
So far, there have been 2 “proven” cases of HIV infection from dental treatments. I have the word “proven” in quotation marks because although these cases are rather convincing, there are many sceptics who still believe these patients did NOT get infected with HIV from their dentists and that investigations by the US CDC were flawed. Let’s put that aside for now and look a little more closely at the cases.
The case of the Florida Dentist
This is by far the most famous case of HIV infection from a dentist. In 1990, the US CDC published a case report on a lady named Kimberly Bergalis. She was diagnosed with HIV but denied doing anything that would put her at risk of HIV. She never had any tattoos, blood transfusion, intra-venous drug use or even acupuncture. She had 2 boyfriends and both of them tested negative for HIV.
It was later found that she had 2 teeth pulled out 2 years before she was diagnosed with AIDS and that the dentists who pulled her teeth out was himself diagnosed with AIDS 3 months before that! This now infamous dentist was called Dr. David Acer. Genetic testing on Kimberly’s and Dr.
Acer’s HIV strains were not a perfect match but according to the CDC “were closer than what has been observed for pair-wise comparisons of sequences taken from the other North American isolates studied.” In other words, close enough to prove that Dr. Acer was the one who infected Kimberly.
What was more chilling was that after a huge investigation, 5 more patients of Dr. Acer were found to be infected with HIV!
The case of the Tulsa Dentist
In 2013, a patient was found to be infected with Hepatitis C after visiting his dentist Dr. Scott Harrington. This prompted the state health department to raid his office. And lo and behold, they found what can only be described as nightmarish conditions. Dr. Harrington was found to be using old and rusty instruments and had the habit of pouring bleach on his patients’ wounds until “they turn white”!
More than 7,000 of his ex-patients were tested and 3 were found to have HIV, 4 had Hepatitis B and 70 had Hepatitis C!
When they finally found him, he was hiding out at his second home in Arizona.
My own experience
In my career, I have seen 2 cases of possible HIV infection from dentist visits.
One was a young lady from Malaysia. She tested positive for HIV during a routine annual medical checkup to renew her work permit. Just like Kimberly Bergalis who was infected by the Florida Dentist, she too denied any activities that could put her at risk of HIV.
She never had any blood transfusions, never did drugs, never had any tattoos and in fact, she never even had sex before! Prior to her HIV diagnosis, she visited 2 dentists. One was in Singapore and one was in Malaysia. The dentist in Singapore was investigated by the Ministry of Health and was found to be clear of HIV and had good infection control practices.
Another case was that of a young man also from Malaysia. Just like the young lady, he denied any risky behaviour that would expose him to HIV. And just like the young lady, he visited a dentist prior to being diagnosed.
These 2 cases were never properly investigated by the authorities so were never proven.
Of course NOT!
It’s like saying you’ll never walk out in the open because people have been struck by lightning before. These are very isolated cases among billions of dental visits that happen every day around the world.
Furthermore, they are isolated cases of actual HIV infection among thousands of other patients who were potentially exposed to HIV at the dentists’ and never gotten infected.
Some people theorize that statistically, this means these 2 dentists (Dr. Acer and Dr. Harrington) must have done something so extreme that they can actually infect 9 patients between them. Some people even think that they intentionally infected their patients.
Theoretically, it is possible to get infected with HIV from a dental visit. But it is unlikely and the conditions have to be extreme for it to be even possible. This is NOT a reason to stop seeing your dentist. If you are concerned, check with your local health authorities to make sure that the dental practice you want to visit is licensed and complies with local infection control measures.
For a deeper understanding of how HIV can survive outside the body, you might find our article on the lifespan of HIV outside the human body enlightening.