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Anaheim 99 Monday, 25 January, 1999, 20:44 GMT
The word on gum disease
Sarah Griffiths in Anaheim
From the BBC's Sarah Griffiths in Anaheim

AAAS Expo
Gum disease is more serious than you think. Left untreated it can lead to a range of other serious problems including heart disease.

Medical researchers have raised their concerns at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Anaheim, southern California.

Scientists have known for some time that the bacteria responsible for gum disease can leave the mouth and migrate around the body in the blood stream.

But the AAAS was told that it now appears that these microbes can be causing harm in different parts of the body.

Premature births

Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry have found evidence that suggests a link between gum bacteria and the birth of premature babies.

Infections elsewhere in the body are already known to be important risk factors in this, and according to Professor Steve Offenbacher, gum bacteria may also cross the placental barrier from mother to child.

"We have done a case control study and found that mothers that have little babies have more severe gum disease than mothers of normal full term babies," he said.

"So our work has shown a direct link between little babies and those having some exposure to oral pathogens."

US Veterans

There may also be a link between poor gum health and heart disease, according to Professor Walter Loesche from the University of Michigan, who has been involved in a ten-year study of American war veterans.

"Our data says that it looks like certain of the bacteria that cause gum disease seem to be statistically associated with heart disease in these older people," he told the meeting.

Alarming though this may sound, Professor Loesche said it is, in a way, good news.

"The excitement here is that gum disease we can treat. And if it is a real risk factor for heart disease, we may be able to control that and maybe prolong life longer than it now is."

But although gum disease is easily treated, few people bother to seek treatment for the condition because it is not in itself painful or debilitating. Public awareness campaigns will therefore be needed to encourage people to take a greater interest in oral hygiene.

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