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Advancing Science for Global Health
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Home > Global Health Matters Sep/Oct 2022 > Opinion: Oral health researchers welcome here! Print

Oral health researchers welcome here!

September / October 2022 | Volume 21 Number 5

I was thrilled to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the International Association for Dental Research. A renewed sense of urgency in global oral health is surfacing now and highlighted by two recent publications. One is the recent Lancet Commission on Oral Health, which brought together a collection of world-renowned experts to consider the opportunities and challenges ahead, primarily in the areas of global access to care and delivery. The second is the 2021 WHO Draft Global Strategy on Oral Health that has presented a fresh plan for tackling oral diseases. The WHO proposal includes a framework for tracking progress with measurable targets to be achieved by 2030.

Headshot of Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. GlassRead recent opinion pieces from Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.

There is a growing recognition that oral health has been left out of the agenda for universal health care (UHC). We all recognize that it’s impossible to exclude dental health from general health. It follows, then, that UHC can only be achieved when oral care is included in the commitment to “better health for all.”

I believe medical research and oral health research need not be conducted in silos. We at Fogarty welcome bright ideas from anyone from any discipline seeking to work on oral health issues. I see an abundance of opportunities for crossover and partnerships spanning diverse medical and dental interests. For example, further investigation is needed into the established associations between oral health and cardiovascular disease as well as oral health and cancer. Another potential collaboration might be examining the extent to which the quality of oral health care throughout the lifespan is a key determinant of aging.

Though only a small percentage of NIH’s $45 billion dollar budget goes directly to Fogarty’s international agenda, all the institutes maintain global footprints, while more than half have joined us to fund global health projects.

Currently, the NIH has the good fortune of outstanding senior leadership with deep roots in oral health. Dr. Lawrence Tabak is currently performing the duties of the NIH Director after previously holding the post of director of the National Institute of Dental and Cranial Research (NIDCR). Meanwhile, the NIDCR’s current director, Dr. Rena D’Souza, has strongly supported and promoted global oral health throughout her tenure.

Her vision for NIDCR borrows from the global initiative for HIV and Sickle Cell Disease proposed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which she sees as an innovative systems approach to devastating diseases that pose profound public health threats. The recent appointment of Dr. Jessica Webster-Cyriaque as NIDCR’s deputy director also speaks to an international vision. Webster-Cyriaque helped found a training program in Malawi as well as that nation’s first dental school (as this Q&A article explains).

Fogarty’s portfolio develops talent by sponsoring qualified, emerging investigators and giving them protected time to conduct research in LMICs. Individual research opportunities include one-year fellowships for students and postdocs from anywhere in the world. While still a dental student, Dr. Ashley Karczewski helped conduct a survey of the provision of oral health care to teens living with HIV in Kenya as her Fogarty project. Past dental fellows include Dr. Lilliam Pinzon who evaluated dental restorations in underserved HIV-positive children in Mexico.

Another Fogarty program, the International Research Scientist Development Award, provides five years of mentored support for U.S. postdoc scientists who wish to spend 50% of that time in an LMIC. Meanwhile, the Emerging Global Leader Award offers the same level of support for postdoc scientists from LMICs. Fogarty has supported Dr. Lord Gowans who used genomic sequencing to elucidate the etiology of cleft palate in Ghana, and Dr. Dalton Wamalwa, who created an oral health training program called TABASAMU—a Swahili word meaning “smile”—for dentists wishing to work with HIV/AIDS patients in Kenya.

Two additional Fogarty programs, Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) and Mobile Health: Technology and Outcomes in Low and Middle Income Countries (mHealth) also welcome scientists with original oral health research projects. Regarding mHealth, I wonder: What conditions could smart phone images help detect in the face, mouth, jaw and gums? Could a mobile phone equipped with AI help diagnose patients who are supported by community health workers?

This is an extraordinary time to expand and articulate Fogarty’s global training and research agenda in the area of oral health. It will always be our mission to seek fresh scientific minds and projects committed to the goal of radical inclusion: better health, including oral health, for all.

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Updated October 13, 2022

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