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Potential Dental Malpractice Down Under

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Melbourne, AustraliaIt may have happened half a world away, but it could have occurred just as easily in your own neighborhood, down your own street. The fact that somebody forgot to turn on a switch for a sterilization machine in a dental clinic at an Australian hospital opens the door for a potential medical malpractice lawsuit.

According to the November 18 edition of The Age, a Melbourne-based newspaper, 33 patients were treated at the Bundaberg Hospital dental clinic, after which the equipment was supposed to have been sterilized.

Sterilization protocol involves washing the affected instruments in detergent and hot water and then steaming them in an autoclave machine. When the instruments were prepared for sterilization in the autoclave on November 6, a staff member allegedly failed to switch on the machine. Upon unloading the instruments, staff proceeded to treat patients with the unsterilized equipment.

The error was finally realized a full week later.

Now, according to Queensland Health, as many as 235 patients could have been exposed to blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis.

It is not known if any of the 33 patients initially treated with the equipment carried any the blood-borne viruses. However, if all 33 patients come out clear after testing, "then there is a zero chance of any [infection] with those other people," said Dr. Jeannette Young, Queensland Chief Health Officer.

Dr. Young went on to say that even if one of the 33 tested positive for HIV or hepatitis, there is still a "very, very low risk" of infection given that the instruments were washed before being put into the autoclave.

Those assurances provide little solace for the patients who are now waiting to see if they might be affected. One young mother of a seven-month-old baby told The Age, "I am absolutely shocked. I've got through my whole life not contracting any of those diseases and they could have just infected me in that second."

This isn't the first time Bundaberg has been mired in controversy. Dr. Jayant Patel, a former surgeon, awaits trial next year on charges involving manslaughter, grievous bodily harm, and negligence.


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