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'Dentist alert' patient death probe

Police are investigating whether a young woman died because of care she received at a dentist clinic which allegedly flouted safety standards, sparking a major public health alert.

Around 22,000 patients treated at the clinic are being urged to come forward for tests for blood-borne viruses including HIV and Heaptitis B and C.

Dentist Desmond D'Mello has been suspended pending a full investigation amid claims he kept medical equipment in the staff toilet and failed to wash his hands and change his gloves between patients.

Health chiefs have launched a public appeal to trace every patient who has been treated by Mr D'Mello during his 32-year career. It is believed to be the biggest recall in British history.

Mr D'Mello, who ran the Daybrook Dental Practice in Gedling, Nottinghamshire, was suspended in June after a whistleblower secretly filmed him allegedly breaching clinical standards.

And police said they are investigating possible links between the death of a 23-year-old woman in August 2013, and the treatment she received at the clinic earlier that month.

A force spokeswoman said: "Detectives are now working to establish if there are any links between the death and the dental treatment she received. This is all being undertaken in close liaison with the NHS."

She said an investigation into the death of another woman, 29, who died in August 2013 found "no evidence" of any links between her treatment and her death.

Within an hour of the recall's announcement worried patients had started queuing outside an emergency walk-in clinic set up for them.

NHS England said Mr D'Mello is not infected with any of the viruses himself. But they said his alleged failure to follow clinical standards may have put his patients at "low risk" of infection.

Dr Doug Black, medical director for NHS England in Nottinghamshire, apologised to the thousands of patients caught up in the scare.

He said: "Our investigation demonstrates that acceptable infection control standards do not appear to have been followed by Mr D'Mello whilst he was treating patients at the former Daybrook Dental Practice.

"Immediate actions were taken to protect current patients once these apparent lapses were identified.

"However, this alleged drop in clinical standards may have put people at a low risk of infection from hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, we are advising all patients who have seen Mr D'Mello to seek further advice on what action they may need to take."

He added: "We are extremely sorry for the undoubted worry and concern people may feel on hearing this news. I would like to stress again that the risk is low but would encourage anyone affected to contact the advice line."

There are fears that breaches of safety standards at the clinic could date back decades.

Care Quality Commission inspectors launched a surprise visit on the clinic in July this year, and found the centre did not meet cleanliness and infection control standards.

The report said: "We observed the staff toilet and the room next to the toilet were being used as store rooms for equipment.

"This posed a risk of these items coming into contact with body fluids which may be contaminated. This risk had not been identified by staff at the dental surgery and no action had been taken to minimise it."

Their visit followed concerns raised the previous month by an unnamed whistleblower who used a hidden camera to film Mr D'Mello. The footage allegedly showed "multiple failures in cross-infection control standards".

But inspectors had visited the clinic just six months before, in November last year, and gave it a clean bill of health.

Mr D'Mello has been suspended for 18 months pending a full investigation into the allegations.

Health officials are now trying to trace all his former clients, but warn that they do not have up to date information for everyone.

Dr Black said: "We are therefore making this public appeal through the media to recommend that, as a precautionary measure, all patients who may have received dental treatment from Mr D'Mello seek further advice on what action they may need to take."

Charities and public health experts called for calm and said the risk to patients appeared low.

Dr Rosemary Gillespie, chief executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "It is right that these patients have been recalled, but we would reassure anyone who has been contacted that there is next to no risk of HIV being passed on in this way.

"HIV is a fragile virus, which becomes inactive minutes after leaving the body. For the virus to be passed on via dental equipment, it would have to be passed from one mouth to the next far more quickly than most appointments would allow."

Professor Andrew Lee, a public health expert at the University of Sheffield, said: "In reality I think the risk would be quite low and I think it is important the public maintains a degree of perspective here about the real, actual risk posed to them."

David Corless-Smith, director of Dental Law Partnership, a law firm specialising in dental negligence, said the recall is "deeply shocking but not altogether surprising".

He said: "Unfortunately, we see this kind of appalling malpractice on a daily basis and work on behalf of patients to bring rogue dentists to justice."

He added: "For far too long dentists have been considered to be untouchable with patients who have had appalling treatment too afraid to come forward or unsure of how to tackle dental malpractice. Today's case in Nottingham is lifting the lid on an issue that affects every single one of us."

The former Daybrook Dental Practice has been under new ownership and Mr D'Mello is no longer associated with the practice.

Two nurses who were also filmed are also being investigated.

Patients can contact a helpline on 03330 142479, which is staffed 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.

A community clinic has been set up at the Arnold Health Centre in the Highcroft Medical Centre on the High Street in Arnold, Nottingham, and is open during the same hours.

Nottinghamshire police stressed their investigation is on behalf of the local coroner and is not technically a criminal investigation.

There was a steady stream of concerned patients visiting Highcroft Medical Centre in Arnold, Nottingham, this afternoon.

The patients said they were shocked and surprised by today's news.

They said there was a small queue inside the centre and a 90-minute to two-hour wait for a blood test.

One man, who was a patient of the dentist for 30 years, said: "He was an excellent dentist, that's all I can say.

"I'm not privy to the hygiene methods he used, obviously.

"I was absolutely shocked. I really was shocked, yes."

Asked about whether he felt reassured by his visit to the centre, he said: "I think so, yes."

An elderly patient coming out of the centre said: "I was very shocked because he was a very popular dentist."

Asked whether she suspected any problems, she added: "Not at all."

Her husband said: "He was a lovely chap - a wonderful dentist. I was very happy with him and it's all come as a bit of a shock."

Dr Black said that if he was a patient hearing today's news "I would be upset, angry, I would be worried I had been placed at potential risk" and urged those affected to contact the helpline.

He also confirmed that police, on behalf of the local coroner, are investigating whether a woman's death last year was linked to her dental treatment.

He added: "To stress, there are no criminal proceeding or investigations taking place at this time."

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