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UK College of Dentistry Researcher Leads Periodontal Disease Multi-institutional Study

By Amanda White


Jeffrey Ebersole, Ph.D., director, UK Center for Oral Health Research

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"Our goal is to develop information to demonstrate that it is very important for physicians to consider a pregnant woman’s oral health as part of their overall health screening during prenatal care."

-- Jeffrey Ebersole, Ph.D., director of the Center for Oral Health Research, UK College of Dentistry

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Aug. 19, 2002 (Lexington, Ky.) -- A University of Kentucky College of Dentistry researcher recently received a grant to see if expectant mothers with periodontal disease have an increased chance of giving birth to pre-term, low birth-weight babies.

Recent epidemiological studies noted that expectant mothers with periodontal disease may have a three to seven times greater risk of giving birth to pre-term and low birth-weight babies.

Jeffrey Ebersole, Ph.D., director of the Center for Oral Health Research at the UK College of Dentistry, is principal investigator for a multi-institutional study in collaboration with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and The Forsyth Institute in Boston. The study is now underway at an NIH-supported National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas.

At the center, Ebersole and his collaborators are looking at pregnant baboons that develop periodontal disease similar to humans, to see if there is a link between oral infections and premature and low birth-weight babies. Samples are taken from the baboons in San Antonio and brought to UK, where they are studied.

The study is being conducted with a five-year, $3.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, the largest research grant in the history of the College of Dentistry.

Periodontal disease occurs when, due to poor oral hygiene, bacterial plaque builds up on the teeth, causing the gums to become inflamed, which damages the bone and gums that support the teeth.

Kentucky has the second highest rate of edentulism -- loss of all teeth -- in the U.S., often resulting from periodontal disease. Also, when the bacteria or their toxins from the mouth get into the blood, they clearly increase the risk for general health problems, like endocarditis and diabetes, and also appear to contribute to pre-term and low birth-weight babies.

An average of about 10 percent of births are pre-term and 8 percent of infants born have a low birth-weight, according to national health statistics. These rates are even higher in minority populations and medically underserved women, such as those in Eastern Kentucky Appalachia. This rate has been virtually unchanged over the last two decades.

Ebersole’s study uses baboons because of their similarity to humans in both pre-term birth and periodontal disease.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report, oral health is integral to overall health. The mouth is a mirror for general health and well-being.

“Good oral health is not just a matter of having an attractive smile.” Ebersole said.

Ebersole and his research collaborators in San Antonio and Boston are trying to provide evidence to make oral health a part of pregnant women’s prenatal care. By receiving oral health care, even after conception, it should be possible to deter the effects of gum disease on the unborn baby and protect the newborn infant.

“Our goal is to develop information to demonstrate that it is very important for physicians to consider a pregnant woman’s oral health as part of their overall health screening during prenatal care,” Ebersole said.

Not only will improving mothers’ oral health lessen the risk of delivering early, but also it will have short and long-term benefits to society. When a pre-mature baby is admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, it is estimated to cost on average $30,000 more than if the baby was healthy.

“With more than 4,000 infants born each year in Kentucky pre-mature or at low birth-weight, it is easy to see the immediate costs to the Commonwealth,” Ebersole said.

“As importantly, premature/low birth-weight infants continue to have a higher risk of health problems throughout their lives. The ability to treat or prevent oral disease in expectant mothers to reduce this important health problem could have dramatic benefits to improving the health of all Kentuckians,” Ebersole said.


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