Oral cancer awareness is vital, warn UAE dentists

Dentists push for awareness and screening of oral cancer, which can be fatal if not treated early enough.

DUBAI // Awareness and provision of care for oral cancer is severely lacking in the country, experts said.

Healthcare professionals and the community must make the disease a priority, said David Wray, the dean of Dubai School of Dental Medicine, who spoke on the sidelines of the 38th Arab Health conference, which finishes tomorrow.

A recently published study by dentistry students at the University of Sharjah's College of Dentistry found that only 5 per cent of more than 1,000 respondents had been screened for oral cancer.

Emiratis and expatriates were questioned, with more than a third admitting they were unaware of oral cancer. Only 21.6 per cent had heard of an oral cancer examination.

"The results are very low," said Natheer Al Rawi, an associate professor of oral pathology at the College of Dentistry and the principal author of the study. Respondents "said to me, really? There is oral cancer? Not throat? So this is a misconception that should be corrected", Prof Al Rawi said.

The majority who had undergone screening were expatriates, mainly from Europe and the US, he said.

Other misconceptions included factors that can lead to oral cancer, said Sausun Al Kawas, an associate professor with the oral and craniofacial health sciences department at the university and a co-author of the study. She said that people think spicy food or biting the cheek can cause cancer. "So many people, over 90 per cent - so they don't know much," she said.

In fact, smoking and the human papillomavirus are two main causes of oral cancer.

Examining a patient during a routine visit to the dentist takes just seconds, Prof Wray said. "It takes a moment to check whether they have any suspicious soft tissue" lesions.

Early detection is key to survival, he said. "If the lesion is 2 centimetres in diameter, there is a 95 per cent survival rate after six months."

If the lesion is more than 4cm, the survival rate drops to 5 per cent after six months. And once oral cancer spreads to secondary sites, it is almost impossible to cure.

It is not among the top 10 most- common cancers in Abu Dhabi, said Dr Jalaa Taher, section head of cancer control and prevention at the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi.

"It is not a priority right now, but there is a plan for next year to work on that. As a government we go by priorities. The Government cannot do this alone, so any advocates for this can help them," she said.

Dentists must also spread awareness, said Dr Ilhaam Abbas, of the Abu Dhabi Dental Centre."I think it is very, very low. The patients are not aware of it and, unfortunately, the doctors are not spreading the awareness. Many a time they feel it is not up to them to look out for it - that is has to be a specialist looking out for the symptoms."

Symptoms include mouth ulcers (mainly among non-smokers) that have not healed after two weeks, bleeding gums, white and red patches of skin and numbness.

Given the high morbidity rate once it has spread, oral cancer awareness is vital, said Prof Al Kawas. "Awareness is very important because cancer is preventable if it is caught early ... and that only happens by screening or checking the oral cavity."