Local dentists react after HIV, hepatitis scare in Oklahoma

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By Brent Schanding

Local dentists are reacting after thousands of patients could have possibly been exposed to HIV and hepatitis at a suburban Tulsa, Okla., dental practice. Free screenings for patients began there Saturday and testing will continue this week. Investigators are still alarmed about the sterilization process of the Oklahoma office that reportedly engaged in questionable hygiene practices. 

“Whenever that happens dentists have to react,” said Eddie Towles, DDS, of Shel Dental Center on Jacksboro Pike in LaFollette. 

Towles said the incident there seems isolated but wanted to proactively clear up concerns for local patients. While he’s received no calls or cancellations from his patients, Towles invited The Press to inspect sterilization procedures at his office on Tuesday. 

He — and others at the practice — hope it will ease patients’ fears. 

“Years ago, dentists didn’t wear gloves,” said Michael D. Lopez, Jr., a dentist at the Shel Dental Center. “They would smoke in the operating room.” 

But modern day practices have greatly changed, he said. 

The LaFollette practice — which treats and examines between 30-40 patients each day — sterilizes its tools regularly to ensure the risk of infection for patients is minimized in a device that heats tools to above 200 degrees.  

“It’s like a dishwasher,” said Towles, of the cleaning device. 

The machine exceeds OSHA standards and reliably removes blood that has dried on instruments for up to six hours, according to reports supplied by the dentists. 

The local practice also only uses bottled and distilled water. Hygienists, staff and others at the office constantly apply hand sanitizer to remove bacteria. 

“We hear it every single day,” said Lopez. “People say, ‘We hate you [dentists].’”

And while dental procedures can be painful for some sensitive patients and deter them from regular check-ups, the doctors want patients to realize that prevention is still the key to good oral hygiene.