- Thousands of people infected with the life-threatening
hepatitis C virus may have caught it during routine dental treatment, it
was claimed yesterday.
- Health campaigners warned that current practices in dental
surgery, including the way tools are sterilised, may not be rigorous enough
to remove the risk of transmission of the highly infectious virus between
- Although intravenous drug use is the most common method
of transmission, health workers say dental practices could be the source
of infection for a "substantial number" of the 38 per cent of
sufferers for whom the source of infection is not known.
- In Scotland, 10,000 people are known to be infected with
the disease, which can cause liver disease and cancer and is 100 times
more infectious than HIV.
- But because sufferers can live for 20 years before showing
any symptoms, experts believe that a further 25,000 Scots are unknowingly
- Jeff Frew, the secretary of Capital C, an Edinburgh-based
support group for sufferers, said many people do not know how they became
infected and he believes there is a risk of infection from dentistsí
- His claims have been backed by Nigel Hughes, the chief
executive of the British Liver Trust, who said the risk of infection from
dental surgeries "could not be ignored".
- Mr Frew said "Many of our hepatitis C positive clients
do not fall into any of the risk categories for catching the infection.
- "Dental treatment is the only time when members
of the public come into contact with blood and thereís a huge throughput
of patients receiving dental treatment every day. "
- He added: "Although dentists sterilise their tool-heads,
there is a risk of infection from the actual tools themselves, from the
machinery that drives the tools. Blood could gather behind the drive mechanisms
of tools, which could lead to transmission.
- "In order for there to be no risk of infection,
dentists would have to have two or three spare sets of tools in order to
ensure all equipment was sterilised properly, and at the moment that is
not the case.
- "This is a public health concern of immense proportions."
- According to figures from the Scottish Centre for Infection
and Environmental Health, 58 per cent of hepatitis C sufferers are known
to have injected drugs. About 7 per cent are thought to have picked up
the virus during surgery, from blood transfusions, from sex with an infected
partner or from receiving tattoos.
- For 38 per cent of sufferers, no information on the source
of infection is available and campaigners believe that some people in this
category may have been infected during dental treatment.
- Mr Frew added: "There are people who are infected
who were not injecting drug users, who have not had blood transfusions,
who do not have tattoos or pierced ears and who have only ever had one
sexual partner. They must have got it from somewhere, but at the moment
we do not know what the other sources are. I believe that most of them
caught it during dental treatment, or at least the potential is there."
- Mr Hughes said: "One problem lies with the mechanical
dental handpiece which sucks fluid, including blood and other matter, from
the mouth . After treatment, if the dentist adheres to guidelines, it is
flushed through very rigorously and left to rest for some time.
- "It would be possible to catch hepatitis C in this
way if the equipment is not rigorously cleaned and sterilised. Thereís
always a distinct possibility, especially if the dental practice session
is very busy ."
- A spokesman for the British Dental Association said:
"The hepatitis C virus is easily killed in a steriliser. Providing
dentists follow guidelines laid down for infection control, there should
be no risk of the virus being transmitted during dental treatment."
- However, Mr Frew believes the day-to-day practice of
dentists should be reviewed. He said: " It is up to the dental profession
to prove that there is no risk and until they do we must assume that there
is a risk. We can trust dentists to adhere to guidelines, but how can we
keep track of how they carry out their day-to-day surgeries?"