It is going to be an agonizing wait for the dental patients who recently visited a clinic in Bundaberg, Queensland - for they have been treated with unsterilized equipment, potentially exposing them to blood-borne diseases including HIV.
One batch of equipment used at the Queensland Health clinic on November 6 was washed with high-pressure water and detergent, then dried, but failed to go through the final sterilization process, it was reported.
AdvertisementA staff member prepared the instruments for sterilization, but failed to switch on the autoclave machine. When the instruments were unloaded, it was not detected that they had not been sterilized. They were then used to treat other patients.
Staff at the clinic did not pick up the mistake until 10am last Friday, a full week after the equipment was not sterilized as it should have been.
Queensland Health has started trying to track down 274 patients who attended the clinic from November 6-13 when the unsterilized equipment was in circulation.
A 16-year-old girl is one of hundreds of patients being tested for HIV and Hepatitis.
The teenager found out about the potentially deadly mistake when Queensland Health staff phoned her.
"They said to me that there was a risk I could have HIV, Hepatitis B and C," she said.
She says she could not believe what she was hearing.
"I was shattered. I didn't know what to do really. I went to work, I felt sick to my stomach," she said.
"I'm just disgusted with what the hospital has done... I just said 'look, I work in hospitality and I don't want to put everyone else at risk'.
"It's easy to cut your finger in the kitchen... and so I had to quit my job and now I've got to find a way to pay my rent."
The teenager says she became even more upset when she went for a blood test to see if she caught anything during her treatment.
"They didn't tell me anything else, they just said to me it's a precaution so I don't actually know if the unsterilized tools were used on me," she said.
Queensland Health says Bundaberg patients are being offered counseling while they await their test results, but the 16-year-old says she has not received that offer.
Mercifully, none of the 33 patients treated before the mishap has a history of HIV or hepatitis. But Queensland Health must wait until it receives the results of their blood tests on Friday before it can categorically rule out any chance of infection.
''If none of them have hepatitis or HIV, then there is zero chance of any [infection] with those other people,'' the state's chief medical officer, Jeannette Young, said.
''I'd like to wait for those blood results before we said there was absolutely no risk.''
Australian Medical Association Queensland infectious disease spokesman Mike Whitby said the risk was "extremely low".
Dr Whitby said if those tests proved negative for blood-borne diseases, the risk to patients treated with the unsterilized equipment was zero.
He said even if one of those patients tested positive, the chances of others treated with the same equipment becoming infected was "very, very small."
"Viruses are designed to live inside the human body so even putting them out into the open, into the air, will kill many of them fairly quickly," Dr Whitby said.
"Secondly, if you've had viruses immersed in detergent, the detergent . . . kills it fairly quickly.
"Having said that, it's really not something that should happen. There should be checks and balances in the sterilization process to make sure that that doesn't happen."
Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle described the situation as "shocking".
"I can't believe that after the series of blunders we've had in the past four or five years, it just keeps getting worse," he said.
Health Minister Paul Lucas has vowed to ensure those responsible for unsterilized equipment being used at The Bundaberg Dental Clinic were properly disciplined.
"This is a basic error which is just not acceptable," Mr Lucas told ABC radio.
"Dealing with sterilized equipment is something that, every day, dentists do, thousands and thousands of dentists Australia-wide do.
"And for this equipment not to have been sterilized properly and for it then to be used is just simply unacceptable."
It's not the first time Bundaberg Hospital has been accused of negligence. It was here the notorious Indian-origin surgeon Jayant Patel had played havoc with people's lives. He will stand trial next year for manslaughter, grievous bodily harm and negligence.
''Bundaberg Hospital is scary. You just don't know what's going to happen there,'' a dental clinic patient said.