Veronicah Anyango brushes her teeth once daily, mostly after breakfast before she leaves for work.
Her intention for doing so is to avoid having a foul breath in the office and not necessarily for health purposes.
“I don’t like embarrassments. So when I know I will be meeting people, I have to make sure that my teeth are clean.”
Anyango represents thousands of Kenyans who disregard recommended dental hygiene practices as they lack awareness on the significance of good oral health.
Compared to other diseases, people take oral ailments for granted as they are deemed to culminate in less severe consequences such as dental cavities and tooth ache.
“What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t brush? Some teeth will decay and cause you pain. Then you can have the cavities filled if you have money or have them extracted if you don’t. Afterwards you will be fine,” she says.
Unknown to people like her, oral health complications can lead to severe life threatening complications such as heart disease and cancer.
Robert Mathenge, interventional cardiologist at Nairobi Hospital says poor dental hygiene enhances the breeding of harmful bacteria in the mouth leading to gum inflammation. This condition causes gum disease which is usually characterised by swollen or bleeding gums.
According to him, gum disease that occurs over a long period of time contributes to enhanced inflammation levels in the body which increases heart attack risk among individuals with poor oral health.
Dr Mathenge says inflammation is the ‘fire’ that burns the arteries leading to heart attack risk.
“We are aware of those factors that make us prone to heart disease such as smoking, obesity, diabetes and hypertension. All of them interact with some form of inflammation in the body to cause the ailment.”
“If you have any of the risk factors in addition to poor dental hygiene, you become more vulnerable to heart attacks.”
To be safe, he stated that people need to take dental hygiene seriously and ensure that they brush their teeth thoroughly after meals.
“Sometimes you may have inflamed gums with less noticeable symptoms. So many people may not be aware of it until it’s too late.”
Health guidelines recommend that people brush their teeth at least twice daily, and especially before going to bed.
But most Kenyans are still off the mark. Government statistics from the 2015 Kenya Stepwise Survey for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) risk factors found that whereas 89 per cent of Kenyans clean their teeth once daily, only 36 per cent do so twice daily.
These figures, according the report, decrease as age advances yet the older people get, the more vulnerable they become to NCDs such as heart disease and cancer.
Aside from cardiovascular disease, scientists have also linked gum disease to cancer.
A new study published in the current issue of the Cancer Research journal shows that some mouth bacteria that cause gum disease are linked to oesophageal cancer.
The research, which involved more than 122,000 participants in the United States, found that higher levels of mouth bacteria known as Tannerella forsythia and Porphyromonas gingivalis were associated with increased risk of the cancer. But the study also discovered that a few types of oral bacteria such as Neisseria seem to have a protective effect against the cancer.
“Future research can potentially examine whether these bacteria could play a role in preventing oesophageal cancer,” said Dr Jiyoung Ahn, lead author of the study from the New York-based NYU Langone Medical Centre.
“But our research confirms that good oral health, including regular tooth brushing and dental visits, is an important way to guard against gum disease and the growing list of health conditions associated with it.”
Oesophageal cancer is the sixth leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Survival rates for the disease are low (between 15 to 25 per cent) since it is usually discovered at an advanced state. Preventing the disease in whichever way possible is thus deemed paramount.
The researchers noted that learning more about the effects of organisms found in the mouth will help in the development of appropriate strategies to prevent cancers linked to them.
Other cancers that have been associated with gum disease include head and neck tumours as well as lung, gallbladder, breast and melanoma cancers.