Cape Town - Gum disease would seem to have little to do with going into labour, but latest research from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has confirmed that chronic inflammation of the gums may result in early labour.

Professor Charlene Africa, from UWC’s department of medical biosciences, looked at oral swabs taken from pregnant women in Rwanda and KwaZulu-Natal.

She found that up to 20 to 30 percent of preterm deliveries could be traced back to bacteria produced by pregnancy-related gingivitis (gum disease). Periodontal disease was common to about 50 to 70 percent of pregnant women.

Periodontitis – a progression of gingivitis – is the disease that affects the gums and the bone supporting the tooth. Caused by an overgrowth of oral bcteria or plaque, it is a major cause of tooth loss if left untreated.

In her study, which looked at 200 mothers from Rwanda and another 400 from KZN, Africa collected their plaque samples and tracked their delivery records.

The results of the four-year study confirmed a significant correlation between the gum diseases and preterm births. Her research focused on a group of bacteria known as the “red complex” associated with periodontal disease.

It has been established that bacteria enter the bloodstream and travel to the uterus, triggering the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like lipids.

These are known to control inflammation, but they also play a part in childbirth by triggering uterine contractions.

In another study, researchers at the Duke University School of Medicine in the US linked the thinning of the chorion – a membrane that separates the mother and the developing foetus – with a build up of bacteria.

Africa said the good news was that gum disease could be treated during pregnancy.

“Despite much controversy and apprehension from dentistry for the fear of bacteria releasing into the bloodstream, gingivitis can be treated safely during the second trimester of pregnancy.”

Africa said it was important for pregnant women to report any oral difficulties to health workers or gynaecologists.

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Cape Argus