Smile Study

Reporter: Andrea Burns

John Newnham says "premature birth is the single greatest problem in reproduction in Australia today" When it comes to the miracle of delivering babies, you'd think what's going on in the mum's mouth couldn't be less important. Doctors wonder otherwise.

Professor John Newnham, Head of Obstetrics at the University of Western Australia, says doctors already know babies born early have a higher death rate. The ones that make it can face a lifetime of health issues - especially respiratory problems. What he wants to find out is whether infection from gum disease can actually trigger early births. "A woman with gum disease has an abscess about the size of the palm of her hand in her mouth, hidden around the base of the teeth that abscess will release into her circulation very active chemicals and we know those chemicals are involved in the initiation of labour"

Called the "Smile Study", thousands of pregnant women, like fifth-time mum Eliza Davies is being screened to see if they have gum disease. Of those who do, some are treated during pregnancy, others after, to determine whether treating the gum disease affects the outcome of the pregnancy. "I suppose I have peace of mind with 4 children before that have all been born in the normal range but you never want to take these things for granted especially the older you get the higher the risk of having children earlier, so yes, and its v reassuring"

New mum Melissa Moore has a family history of gum disease. She's part of the group being treated, post birth. "It was very interesting to me that I could actually be of some use and some help to working out the study" Baby Ben was born healthy, but one week early, Melissa's teeth will be treated for free. "It's been great cos I haven't had treatment for a couple of years now and I knew that I was due and also the problems of going to a dentist with a baby, that is actually quite dramatic and they were very baby friendly so I was very happy to take Ben with me"

The study's the biggest of it's kind in the world but now needs more expectant mums - 12 to 20 weeks pregnant to complete the research. John Newnham, there's a family link of his own in initiating this research on other people's families. "My brother's a periodontist and he's been saying to me for years that I should be looking with him and others at the effects of gum disease on pregnant women, I wish I'd listened to him 20 years ago"

A pilot programme, part funded by Telethon, showed a link between gum disease and early labour. The results of the Smile study won't be completed until next year, but whatever they find, Professor Newnham says it'll provide important answers. "The world's waiting for the results, if it's positive , it will influence clinical practice world wide if the smile study shows treating gum disease during pregnancy has no effect that's beneficial on a pregnant woman then we will have answered the question once and for all and we can all move on and investigate other exciting possibilities"

But to complete the research, more women between twelve and twenty weeks pregnant are needed.

To participate in the SMILE STUDY, phone 9340 2982.