|Earlier this year, scientists uncovered the cause of a stillborn baby’s death: bleeding gums.
Following the tragic occurrence, the infant’s mother had contacted researchers at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and asked them to investigate the possibility of a connection between her baby’s stillbirth and her own gum disease. The scientists subsequently discovered a unique strain of bacteria in the infant’s lungs and stomach and detected the same strain in plaque samples of the mother’s teeth. Given that this particular strain is generally foreign to the vaginal region, the investigators concluded that the bacteria that killed the baby had not originated in the vaginal canal (as is the most common origin of uterine infections) but rather had entered the bloodstream from the mouth and spread from there to the placenta.
Dentists have long warned expectant mothers that untreated gum disease can result in an infant being born either prematurely or undersized. Never before, however, had it been linked to such devastating effects in a full-term baby. While such occurrences had been observed in laboratory mice, this marked the first time such a case had been confirmed among humans.
“Once the bacteria are in the blood, they can go almost anywhere,” warned Yiping Han, an associate professor of periodontics and pathology at Case Western and the leading investigator in this case.
Normally, bacteria that enter the bloodstream through the mouth are easily resisted by a person’s immune system. However, there is evidence to suggest that the womb may be significantly more susceptible to infections than other parts of the body.
“The placenta is an immuno-suppressed organ, compared to other organs like the liver and the spleen,” Han explained. “And that makes it easy for the bacteria to colonize the placenta.”
The mother of the stillborn baby reported having suffered notably heavy bleeding from her gums at times during her pregnancy. Bleeding gums are not uncommon in pregnant woman, with as many as 75% experiencing it, as a result of corresponding hormonal changes.
For dentists, the findings of this investigation may be intriguing, but not altogether shocking. They merely reinforce what those in the dental industry already know: that oral health has as much of an impact on overall systemic health as any other form of health. Unfortunately, many of those outside the industry are ignorant of this fact and place oral health on a lower tier of importance than other aspects of their health. As new discoveries are being made and new information is being gathered, the need for a greater general awareness of the significance of oral health has become increasingly more obvious and urgent. Dentists must make every effort to educate their patients – particularly, as this study shows, those that are pregnant or are planning to become so – on this matter and alert them to the far-reaching and devastating consequences a failure to maintain one’s oral health can potentially have.
“We know that gingivitis doesn’t happen overnight and that it’s important for women to enter pregnancy in good health,” said Dr. Michael Lu, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and public health at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center. “I would love to see every woman who is contemplating pregnancy get pre-conception care that includes an oral health check-up.”