Columbia University Finds Partners to Improve Oral Health in Africa



There is only one dentist for every 42,000 people in Kenya, which is far below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of one for every 7,000. Also, most dentists in Kenya practice in the country’s urban areas, leaving most rural residents without access to oral care. Poor oral health in these populations has been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and strokes, as well as absenteeism from work and school.

Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) are now teaming up with the University of Nairobi, Unilever East Africa, and the Columbia Global Centers | Africa to improve oral health care and disease prevention in Kenya and other resource-poor countries in East Africa. The project is part of the Children’s Global Oral Health Initiative at Columbia.

“The time has come for a radical change in our thinking about the importance of teeth and the mouth in terms of overall health,” said Christian Stogler, DMD, dean of the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. “Left untreated, certain oral health-related diseases, such as oral cancer, can be fatal.”

Partners also include the ministries of health in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and the Kenya Dental Association. Together, the groups will aim to improve oral health and related illnesses by integrating oral health care into these countries’ health prevention and education initiatives. They hope to inform policy that these ministries of health can implement to meet local needs.

“We have chosen to initially engage stakeholders from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania because these 3 countries share a common history, ethnicity, and language and cooperate both politically and economically,” said Kavita P. Ahluwalia, DDS, director of Global Oral Health Initiatives for Africa and South Asia at the College of Dental Medicine.

The project also will include a research component. In June, students from CUMC will begin research in Kenya under the mentorship of Ahluwalia and professor Regina Mutawe of the University of Nairobi. The results of their research are expected to be applicable to other resource-poor countries in the region.

In March, members of the partner groups met at Columbia Global Centers | Africa in Nairobi. Participants included more than 100 leaders in oral health as well as high-ranking government and dental officials. Together, they identified regional priorities and began defining next steps to address oral health needs. Sustainable models of oral care delivery were presented as well.

“The summit was a great success,” said Stephen W. Nicholas, MD, principal director of the Children’s Global Oral Health Initiative and professor of pediatrics and population and family health at CUMC. “It far exceeded our expectations at every level, including in participation, attendance, and enthusiasm.”

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