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The BBC's Rebecca Carr
"More than 5,000 people will have received a letter"
 real 56k

Friday, 6 October, 2000, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Scare over HIV dental worker
Dental equipment
Dental patients may be at small risk
Patients treated by an HIV positive dental worker have been warned they are at very small risk of infection.

North and South Essex Health Authorities have sent out letters to more than 5,000 patients in the Colchester, Clacton and Southend areas who have received treatment over the past 12 years.

The dental worker, whose exact role has not been clarified, stopped working earlier this year after he was diagnosed as HIV.

Because of strict infection control procedures, the risk of transmission of HIV from a health care worker to a patient is very small

North Essex Health Authority

Each patient is being offered counselling and the option of a saliva test for HIV.

In addition, a confidential telephone helpline has been set up on 0800 3280975.

Health authority officials defended the decision to wait six months before contacting patients.

They said information had been held back because they wanted to compile an accurate picture of who might be at risk and did not want to cause widespread alarm.

The operation to trace patients is believed to be the biggest of its kind undertaken in the UK.

Strict control

A spokesman for North Essex Health Authority said: "Because of strict infection control procedures, the risk of transmission of HIV from a health care worker to a patient is very small.

"There have been no reported cases in the UK and only two world-wide.

Dr Paul Watson
Dr Paul Watson stressed the risk was tiny

"Even so, the health authorities have undertaken a major `look-back' exercise and have checked rigorously through the relevant dental practice records to identify patients who received dental care involving the health care worker."

About 5,000 patients in North Essex and 100 in South Essex were affected, he added.

North Essex Health Authority's director of public health, Dr Paul Watson, said: "The chances of a patient being infected with HIV while they receive treatment are minuscule, but we do feel that people should be informed and offered a confidential test if they want it.

"Had we made an announcement in March that would have caused a lot of worry to a huge number of people.

"We are expecting thousands of people to call our help line, afraid that they might have been affected. Had we made an announcement in March that number could have run into millions and caused a lot of unnecessary panic."

The health authorities refused to give any further details of the health care worker, citing the person's right to confidentiality.

The overwhelming bulk of the 5,000 patients who have been contacted are in the north Essex health authority area. About 100 are in the south Essex health authority area.

There have been no reported cases of a patient being infected with HIV by a healthcare worker in in the UK, and only two world-wide.

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