News / Africa

Study: Bad Teeth, Gums Major Problems

Doctor Abdul Salam, a dentist, checks a cavity of villager Gul Mohammad at his clinic in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday Dec.14, 2002. People living in villages often come to the city for medical check ups, as there are no doctors in the villages. (AP Photo/
Doctor Abdul Salam, a dentist, checks a cavity of villager Gul Mohammad at his clinic in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday Dec.14, 2002. People living in villages often come to the city for medical check ups, as there are no doctors in the villages. (AP Photo/


Joe DeCapua
A new report says nearly four-billion people – more than half the world’s population – have major tooth decay, or cavities. Health officials warn that poor oral health can lead to social and psychological problems.

Professor Wagner Marcenes led of team of researchers as part of the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study. It listed untreated tooth decay, or cavities, as the most common of all 291 major diseases and injuries.

“It was a massive effort. We had about 500 scientists work on it. And we reviewed all literature, all data on all disease and then came with estimations -- that was the report that has been recently published,” he said.

Marcenes is with the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London.

Tooth decay, or cavities in permanent teeth, is also known as carries.

“Carries is a chronic disease that shares the same risk factors as cancer, cardiovascular disease. What we’re having now is an increase in disease from highly developed countries happening in sub-Saharan Africa and probably it will be in other areas of Africa, too,” he said.

In fact, the study says the “largest increases in the burden of oral conditions” were in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. Marcenes was not surprised at the study’s results.

“It tends to get less attention than some other disease. For example, HIV obviously [is] a much more relevant issue for the health of the population,” he said.

He said that tooth decay is rising sharply in Africa because developing countries are becoming more like Western nations in some ways.

“It is likely to be related to a change in diet. Our industrialized diet leads to chronic disease, which includes carries. And that may be the main explanation.”

The diets of developed nations are rich in sugar, a leading culprit in oral health problems. Marcenes says prior to the 19th Century, people had few cavities because sugar was not readily available. It’s also a major contributor to obesity.

Developed nations dramatically reduced the incidence of tooth decay and cavities by adding fluoride to their drinking water.

He  said, “The fluoridation of the water is a highly important issue, and yes, it came from research in America. It has contributed enormously to that reduction in carries.”

But while the fluoride made teeth more resistant to the bacteria that cause tooth decay, it also allowed people to eat more sweets.

Oral health problems, Marcenes said, have a major negative effect on a person’s quality of life. For one, they make eating difficult. Second, people may change what they eat and opt for softer foods, such as those with more fat. However, the biggest issue, he found, is both social and psychological.

“We have very strong evidence in the literature that the mouth plays a big role on socialization. People feel embarrassed about having bad teeth. Then they tend to smile less. They tend to communicate less. And the familiar thing is to see someone laughing with their hand in front of the mouth because they don’t want people to see.”

Professor Marcenes said that adolescents with bad teeth can face long-term self-esteem issues.

He hopes African and Asian nations will see the health problems of the West and not follow their dietary example. He’s calling for an “urgent, organized, social response” to the widespread lack of oral health.

“We need a public health approach that deals with the causes of the disease, rather than deal with each disease independently because the most disabling disease share the same cause,” he said.

Marcenes is calling for a holistic approach that includes a healthier diet and the development of new and cheaper dental materials and treatments.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs