Prioritizing Oral Health in Our Communities

A blackened tooth is a sure sign of a family that cannot afford dental care. That’s why the mouth is known as “the portal of poverty.” 

According to Stuart Gansky, MS, DrPH, director of UCSF's Center to Address Disparities in Children’s Oral Health (CAN DO), the mouth is “the portal of poverty.” Tooth decay is the most common chronic infection in kids today, and rates are consistently higher in poor and minority communities. People who are poor frequently receive substandard dental care – or none at all – which can cause cosmetic, emotional, and functional problems throughout life. 

The stakes are high. A Pew Charitable Trusts report warns that untreated tooth decay can “cause pain and infection that may lead to difficulty eating, speaking, socializing, and sleeping, as well as poor overall health.” Former US Surgeon General David Satcher estimated that more than 51 million school hours are lost annually due to dental-related illness. “Oral health is integral to general health,”Satcher said in the landmark 2000 report Oral Health in America. 

Gansky is resolute in its commitment to health equity and its visionary approach to a problem that can scar children for life. He and his team have developed dozens of programs to help low-income kids and their parents with everything from accessing routine dental care to providing preventive fluoride and sealants on teeth. 

“I’m here to make a positive impact on people’s health,” Gansky says. He attributes his passion for public health in part to his experience working with the Campus Y, the hub for student leadership and social activism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, as an undergraduate, he worked on local and global hunger relief and campaigned for divestment from South Africa during apartheid. 

Gansky calls CAN DO an “action tank” that works closely with young children and their families, caregivers, and communities. The center conducts research on interventions and programs that will be most effective in helping low-income families prevent tooth decay. It develops public policies to improve oral health; educates families on the importance of dental preventive care, even for baby teeth; and mentors a cadre of students who are aspiring dentists, including post-baccalaureate students from disadvantaged communities, helping them better prepare for becoming part of the oral health solution. 
Stuart Gansky is the Lee Hysan Professor of Oral Epidemiology.

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