More than 3 percent of the Maryland inmates who requested tests after being treated by two prison dentists who died of AIDS have tested positive for the AIDS virus, according to prison officials.
So far, 33 inmates -- out of 957 tested -- were found to be carrying the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, officials said. According to the officials, the rate is lower than that of the general prison population. Twelve inmates tested positive but were known previously to be carrying the virus. Another nine tests are still not final.
The inmates were among a pool of inmates at the Maryland Penitentiary and other area prisons treated by two dentists -- Victor J. Luckritz and Herman D. Scott -- both of whom died of AIDS.
Recent tests have shown that 8.6 percent of all inmates coming into the prison system are carrying the AIDS virus, according to Gregory M. Shipley, a prison spokesman. He called the 3.4 percent rate "a pretty low number."
"Obviously the tests don't indicate where and how the inmates contracted the disease," Shipley said. "We are prepared to test them and treat them. We continue to emphasize that the risk of exposure through a dental procedure is minimal."
"We still feel that there is a much greater risk of contracting the disease outside the prison system than there is inside," Shipley added.
Experts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other agencies have said the risk of getting AIDS from health care workers is very small. A Florida dentist who died of AIDS is thought to have transmitted the disease to as many as five patients. How that happened remains unclear, the experts say. AIDS is transmitted through sexual contact, the sharing of needles and blood-to-blood contact. The experts say that the disease may have been transmitted in the Florida through improperly sterilized equipment or through blood-to-blood contact. For example, the dentist would have had to cut himself while performing a tooth extraction.
About 900 current or former inmates who were patients of the two dentists have not been tested yet. About 400 are still in prison and did not ask for the tests, Shipley said.
The rest have been released from prison. State health officials have sent letters to 330 of those ex-inmates suggesting they be tested for the virus. Officials are still tracking down another 170 .. ex-inmates, according to health officials.
Explaining the relatively low rate of HIV positive results, Dr. Audrey Rogers, chief state AIDS epidemiologist, said many inmates may have declined the tests because they suspected or knew they already had the AIDS virus.
OC "Individuals frequently defer testing because they already know
the answer," Rogers said.
State officials learned earlier this year that Luckritz and Scott had died of AIDS. They were working under contracts with private companies that provided medical care for inmates.
Worried about lawsuits, prison officials and lawyers for the state have argued that it would be hard to prove that a prison dentist had passed the virus on to a patient.
Prison officials have acknowledged that the AIDS virus is passed between inmates, mainly through sexual activity.
Correctional Medical Systems, the company that provides medical care for the state prison system, has spent about $60,000 on tests for inmates, Shipley said.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, in the wake of the AIDS deaths, has called for widespread HIV testing of health-care professionals, as well as patients. He has said he wants to require health-care professionals working under contract with the state to undergo AIDS tests.