KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Medical professionals urged the thousands of a local dentist’s patients, who were sent letters recommending they get tested for HIV and hepatitis B, to not brush off the recommendation.
Dr. Eric Penniman with the Summit Medical Group said it’s not only important to get those tests but to also be tested for hepatitis C.
Patients of Dr. C.L. “Buzz” Nabers Jr. from Sept. 15, 2016, to Sept. 15, 2019, were sent a letter advising them that they may have been exposed to an infection.
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The letter stated the risk of infection was very small, and no patients had reported being infected.
Chance of hepatitis infection is small
Penniman reiterated that the chance was small. He said there is 23 in a 1,000 — essentially, less than 1% — chance someone could be infected if they immediately used the same needle as someone who has hepatitis.
He said the chance of contracting the virus through medical tools, including dental tools, could be less depending on the time passed between the tools being used on another patient.
Blood-borne pathogens are typically known to be passed through dirty needles or sexual activity.
Penniman said that improperly sterilized dental tools can also lead to exposure of those viruses.
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“If you’re talking about mucous membrane, which a dentist, of course, is working inside the gums and inside the cheek — those are mucous membranes. So, actually getting bodily fluids on the mucous membranes definitely exposes a person to bloodborne pathogens,” Penniman explained.
According to a disciplinary report from the state health professions board, Nabers was fined $11,000 partly because he failed to properly sterilize dental equipment.
Disposable tools reused
An investigation by the Tennessee Board of Dentistry found that disposable tools were reused after being placed in a cold sterile solution, and other equipment was not spore tested regularly to ensure harmful microorganisms had been killed.
Penniman said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state level OSHA (TOSHA) set guidelines for a rigorous cleaning process of medical tools in order to keep patients safe.
As an example, he said that some tools are disposable because it’s easier and safer to replace them than to disinfect them properly.
Early treatment equals good outcome
Despite the low risk, Penniman said there is still a chance so patients should get tested.
“The earlier you get tested after potential exposure, you could actually receive medicine to prevent getting the infection. But, even if you did get exposed and you actually got the infection, early treatment equals a very good outcome,” Penniman said.
While hepatitis C wasn’t listed in Nabers letters to patients, Penniman said the virus is more prevalent in East Tennessee than HIV or hepatitis B.
“Everybody, when they think about being exposed to blood, everybody instantly starts worrying about HIV, and yet the number of HIV patients in this area is far less than the hepatitis C. So, hepatitis C is probably more to be worried about,” Penniman said.
He also said it’s important to get tested because each virus may not show symptoms until after a few months.
Symptoms might not show up for months
“If you contract HIV, hepatitis C, hepatitis B, you’re not going to typically notice any symptoms until it starts to actually cause infection. You know, for instance, with the hepatitis viruses, in the liver. And with HIV you could’ve contracted it and have no symptoms for a year or two,” Penniman said.
He said patients should get tested through blood drawl, not a finger prick because of the public health component and risk.
RELATED: Local nonprofit offers free HIV, hepatitis testing after dentist sends warning letter of possible infection
Doctors will only need one blood sample for all three virus tests.
You can get free blood testing at the Knox County Health Department.
If you want to put your mind at ease during the holidays, Penniman said you can visit a Summit Medical Group Express Clinic for the tests.
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