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Columbia St. Mary’s receives $200,000 grant to investigate the connection between oral healthcare and poor birth outcomes

Columbia St. Mary’s has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin’s (MCW) Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program to fund an innovative new project that will provide dental care to at-risk expectant mothers. The project is Phase I of a two-phase project designed to investigate the connection between oral health and poor birth outcomes.

In partnership with MCW, the two-year grant will enable Columbia St. Mary’s to identify pregnant African-American and Hispanic girls and women who are underserved and provide them with oral healthcare. The care will be provided at Columbia St. Mary’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic, 1730 South 13th Street, Milwaukee, WI.

In addition to providing treatment, Columbia St. Mary’s and MCW will help this population overcome barriers to obtaining dental care, and educate at-risk women and area medical providers about the need for good oral healthcare. The knowledge obtained will help Columbia St. Mary’s and MCW conduct research (Phase II) on whether dental care improves birth outcomes.

Columbia St. Mary’s has provided oral care for the underserved at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic since 2000. To support the grant project, a dedicated dentist, Dr. Charles Kosowski, will be the primary provider of oral care for the women at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic. In addition, Columbia St. Mary’s will collaborate with Dr. Wenche Borgnakke, a senior research associate in health sciences and adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Dr. Wenche specializes in gum disease and general health relationships, as well as the design of clinical studies.

“Oral care, which is integral to overall health and well-being, is particularly important during pregnancy, as hormonal changes make the gums more susceptible to swelling and infection,” said Bill Solberg, Director of Community Services for Columbia St. Mary’s.

He added, “Some studies* point to a link between oral diseases and poor birth outcomes such as prematurity and low birth weight, which can cause infant deaths. But more research is needed, and this project will provide vital data to determine the exact extent of that connection.”

The research will be of special importance in the City of Milwaukee, where infant mortality is a public health crisis, especially among minorities.

According to the City of Milwaukee, in 2010 there were 98 infant deaths in the City of Milwaukee. The overall city rate for infant mortality in 2010 was 9.5 infant deaths per 1,000 births. For Milwaukee’s non-Hispanic families, the White infant mortality rate was 4.7 deaths, and the Black rate was more than triple this rate at 14.8 per 1,000. The Hispanic rate was 5.7. Preliminary unverified data for 2011 shows that Milwaukee’s infant mortality rate increased to 9.7.

A report from the United States Surgeon General has identified a “silent epidemic of oral diseases” among the poor in racial and ethnic minority groups. Among women of reproductive age, the rate of oral disease and adult gum infection is approaching 40 percent.

“In Wisconsin, access to dental care remains a significant problem for low-income men and women,” said Solberg. “Although BadgerCare Plus is designed to improve access, few dental providers are able to participate.”

Other partners on the project are Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, the Urban Church Wellness Initiative, and Columbia St. Mary’s Family Health Center, OB/GYN Clinic, and Blanket of Love outreach program. These partners will refer patients to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Dental Clinic for education and treatment.

The project is funded by the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program, a component of the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin endowment at the Medical College of Wisconsin