Exploring Oral Health Disparities in Appalachia

By: Jill Ciciarelli

Oral HealthOral disease remains a major health burden that affects some populations disproportionally, including communities in regions of Appalachia.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Center for Craniofacial and Dental Genetics (CCDG) has received a $4 million grant that will expand its ongoing Factors Contributing to Oral Health Disparities in Appalachia project, part of the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia (COHRA).

The new grant will be dedicated to enrolling pregnant African-American women in the COHRA project, which was previously limited to Caucasian women and their children. COHRA’s long-term goal is to design and implement preventive interventions for oral disease, particularly childhood caries, a bacterial infection that causes corrosion of a child’s teeth due to bacteria that is passed from his or her mother.

Both increased sugar intake and frequency of exposure can trigger a disease process that leads to caries. Additional factors associated with caries in children include genetic risk, household socioeconomic status, maternal caregiving behavior and stress, access to care and ethnicity.

“Through the ongoing work of the existing COHRA study, progress has been made in understanding many of these factors that lead to caries,” said Dr. Mary Marazita, CCDG director and principal investigator of the COHRA study. “However, much remains to be done to further characterize individual risk factors, and, just as importantly, to determine how interactions among them lead to oral health disparities.”

Protocols from the original grant will be followed in the new African-American cohort, adding a large, high-quality data set from an underrepresented population to the study’s existing data. The important influence of race as a factor in oral health disparities can then be added to the genetic, dietary, behavioral, microbiological, medical, and demographic factors already assessed in the study.

In addition to Marazita, investigators from Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine include Dr. Robert Weyant, Dr. Katherine Dr. Neiswanger, Dr. Deborah Polk, Dr. Alexandre Vieira, and Dr. Seth Weinberg. The team also includes Dr. John Shaffer and Dr. Lisa Bodnar from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, and Dr. Debra Bogan from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. As with the parent project, the extension of the COHRA grant is a collaboration with West Virginia University and the University of Michigan.

Jill Ciciarelli is a member of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Craniofacial and Dental Genetics.