Why do oral health care disparities continue to affect Black children?

For New Pittsburgh Courier

Oral health may not be the first thing people associate with pregnancy. But researchers believe that pregnant women may have the key to better understanding the factors that can lead to cavities in children. These factors include genetics, diet, general health, oral hygiene and mouth germs.

The University of Pittsburgh’s COHRA (Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia) study team is working to best address children’s oral health. Through the COHRA Smile Childhood Cavity Study, researchers are examining why young children in Appalachia have higher rates of cavities than children in other parts of the country. The study involves recruiting pregnant folks in order to track mouth health—even as the buds for a child’s teeth are developing. Tracking mouth health starting in pregnancy allows for a long-term look at oral health over the lifespan. Certain exposures during pregnancy could influence the development of teeth and health of the mouth, including the development of cavities.


Cavities are the most common chronic disease in the United States and worldwide. They are the most common reason for missing work or school because of the pain associated with them, says Mary Marazita, PhD, professor and vice chair in the Department of Oral Biology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dental Medicine. For young people, having a toothache can lead to not being able to concentrate in school or on a task.

In 2000, the surgeon general’s report Oral Health in America stated that mouth diseases disproportionately affect people who are poor and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. The report outlines the importance of oral health and its relationship to overall health and well-being. Good mouth hygiene helps keep mouths clean and healthy. An unhealthy mouth can lead to other health problems like a heart attack or stroke.

Despite more people having dental insurance and public health programs aimed at combating tooth decay, health disparities exist for Black children. Why do oral health care disparities continue to affect Black children? Dr. Marazita says limited access to affordable and healthy foods, poor water quality and poverty are big barriers that prolong oral health disparities. The COHRA team is looking at these factors as clues on how to reduce disparities.

The COHRA team works to keep communities engaged throughout the entire research process. They ask for community input when writing grant applications and share data with minority-led community organizations. The group also works with organizations in the black community to make people aware of research findings.

Dr. Marazita invites people to participate in the COHRA Smile Childhood Cavity Study. People who identify as Black, are pregnant and in their second or third trimesters and are healthy enough to have a dental exam are welcome to apply. The team will ask people who sign up to also bring in their child for at least two and a half years for follow-up study. To express interest in and learn more about the study, call Alicia at 412-648-1910.


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