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Progressive Lung Disease Killing Dentists For Still Unknown Cause

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The U.S Centers for Disease Control Prevention on Thursday revealed of a cluster of progressive lung disease affecting dentists and other dental workers. 

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis

The patients, who were treated at a single tertiary care center in Virginia, were diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF, a type of chronic lung disease marked by a progressive and irreversible decline in lung function.

Symptoms of the disease include gradual onset of a dry cough and shortness of breath. The disease does not have a cure yet and those affected often live only about three to five years after diagnosis. The cause of the illness is unknown.

Cluster Of IPF Cases

Of the nine patients in the cluster, seven died over the reported period of 16 years from September 1996 to June 2017. A cluster refers to a collection of cases of a disease or a health-related condition closely grouped in time and place.

Records from the Virginia hospital showed that it treated 894 patients for IPF over the 16-year period. Nine of these patients, or 1 percent of the total number of cases, were dentists or dental technicians.

US Public Health Service medical officer Randell Nett, who is one of the authors of the study published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, said that the number of IPF cases involving dental health workers was about 23 times greater than expected.

All the cluster patients, which include one dental technician and eight dentists, were male and 64 years old on average.

Potential Linked To Occupational Exposures

Nett and colleagues said that while the reason for the illness has not been determined, there is a potential link to occupational exposures.

Dentists and dental personnel are exposed to bacteria, specks of dust, viruses, radiation, gases, and other agents that are potentially hazardous to respiratory health. One of the surviving patients in the cluster reported about doing tasks that would expose dental workers to silica and other compounds that may potentially cause respiratory toxicity without using a mask.

As of 2016, there is about 650,000 dental personnel employed in the United States. Of these, 122,330 are dentists. The researchers said that the cluster of IPF cases calls for a better understanding of the link between occupational exposure of dental personnel and risk for IPF.

"It is possible that occupational exposures contributed to this cluster." Nett and colleagues wrote. "Further investigation of the risk for dental personnel and IPF is warranted to develop strategies for prevention of potentially harmful exposures."

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