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A Death Not in Vain : But don’t draw wrong conclusions from Kimberly Bergalis case

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Twenty mumbled seconds of testimony before a congressional committee last September seared itself deep into the memory of all who saw it on television. Kimberly Bergalis, a once-lovely 23-year-old, then gaunt, barely able to speak, wanted Congress to ban doctors and dentists infected with the AIDS virus from practicing.

She died of AIDS Sunday, four years after a dentist transmitted the virus to her bloodstream, apparently with instruments he failed to sterilize. The news was chilling, even though the dentist, now dead, is the only one known to have spread the disease to patients.

She died only days after the federal Centers for Disease Control said the agency would not pursue an effort to remove surgeons and others infected with the AIDS virus from performing procedures that involve blood. Given Bergalis’ death, it may be more difficult to persuade patients that the CDC decision was correct. But it was.

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The agency originally had asked that surgeons and others involved in so-called “invasive procedures” submit voluntarily to testing for the AIDS virus. If they tested positive, the CDC said, they should tell patients and stop performing such procedures unless cleared by a medical review panel.

But doctors countered that such procedures do not address the risk that health practitioners face daily from treating HIV-positive patients. Far better, doctors said, to emphasize control of infection of any kind by rigid observation of approved practices of sterilization of instruments and careful handling of blood. The CDC then decided not to pursue its testing proposal.

No one wants to see a repeat of the tragedy that befell Kimberly Bergalis. But the best way known for preventing the spread of AIDS from doctor to patient--or patient to doctor--is to maintain strict sanitary procedures.

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