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11,000 patients may have been exposed to HIV at four Sydney dental practices. Here's how to educate yourself.

Image: Fresh Meat (Channel 4). 

Sydneysiders awoke to some shudder-worthy news this morning: up to 11,000 patients may have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis, due to hygiene breaches discovered in four of the city’s dental practices.

The businesses involved are the Campsie and CBD branches of The Gentle Dentist, run by Dr Samson Chan; and Surry Hills and Bondi Junction practices operated by Dr Robert Starkenburg.

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NSW Health is contacting anyone who has undergone invasive procedures at these surgeries over the past decade, recommending they be tested for bloodborne diseases including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. There has been no evidence of transmission, however, and NSW Health’s director of health protection says the risk of infection is low.

An extensive audit of the infection control procedure within the four practices — which was prompted by customer complaints — found issues with cleaning, sterilisation and storage of equipment dating back several years.

Don't cancel that appointment; experts say this is an isolated incident

These practises did not comply with the Dental Board of Australia's guidelines, and subsequently, 12 dentists have been subject to disciplinary action since December. Six dentists, including Dr Chan and Dr Starkenburg, have had their registration suspended, while the rest have had conditions imposed on them.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Starkenburg said he had struggled to keep in step with updating regulations, particularly in the last eight years. "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," the 75-year-old said. However, he tells the ABC he hasn't put any patients at risk.

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Dr Samson Chan is yet to comment on the controversy, but the Sydney Morning Herald reports it's "understood" many of his The Gentle Dentist employees are "young, with little experience with infection control."

Deborah Cockrell, President of the Australian Dental Association's NSW branch, says this doesn't sound accurate because all dental education programs require students to be "comfortable with the highest level of infection control".

“I would think for the younger dentists it would be fresh in their memory," she tells The Glow. (Post continues after gallery.)

Today's news probably isn't reassuring for anyone who dreads going to the dentist, but Dr Cockrell iterates this is an isolated, atypical incident and shouldn't cause patients to be worried about their own dentists.

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"I would plead for people to keep things in perspective... The vast majority [of dentists] have read and adhere to the guidelines about infection control. There’s a tacit need for dentists to adhere to the guidelines," Dr Cockrell says.

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“It’s such a bizarre thing to happen, it’s a bit disappointing actually ... As practitioners, we’re committed to public safety.”

To practise dentistry in Australia, all practitioners must be registered in the State in which they practise, which require certain qualifications.

If you want reassurance your dental practice is safe, you  can check their registration through the website of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). This will provide information on the status and type of registration, and also details whether the dentist has had any conditions imposed on it — Dr Cockrell says this is the case for a "tiny number" of dentists in Australia.

Despite what pop culture suggests, dentists are real, normal people.

If you're still worried, Dr Cockrell also recommends checking whether your dentist is a member of the Australian Dental Association (ADA), which you can do through the association's website. The ADA, of which 90 per cent of Australian dentists are members, provides important resources and materials to help members remain fully informed and up to standard.

"It’s not mandatory to be a member of an organisation, but we do provide good collegiate support and education," she says.

Above all, Dr Cockrell says patients should feel comfortable talking to their dentist and discussing any concerns that may arise. “We are normal people, and we can answer your questions. So if you have any concerns about anything, infection control, the actual procedure — we like questions, so ask.”

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At a press conference earlier today, Dr Shane Fryer from the Dental Council of NSW said the four Sydney practices would remain open but subject to ongoing investigations and monitoring. "I want to assure the public that there are stringent guidelines in place in relation to infection control, that dental practitioners must adhere to," he added.

Dr Cockrell hopes the incident won't deter people from booking an appointment to have their dental issues seen to. “I’d be more worried about staying away from the dentist than going … there’s a strong link between dental health and general health," she says.

Did today's news worry you? 

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