Global Health Nexus, Summer 2001

International Partners in Health: The Universities Of Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch

By Dr. Anthony T. Vernillo
Professor of Oral Pathology

The relationship between South African dental schools and NYU Dentistry, initiated in the early 1990s by Dr. William Greenfield, then associate dean for international affairs, has deepened over the years. Today NYU Dentistry welcomes South African dentists to the Advanced Programs for International Dentists and promotes bidirectional faculty visits.

In August 2000, I was invited to lecture at two major South African universities, the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of Stellenbosch, just outside Capetown. During my nearly monthlong stay, I presented lectures in oral medicine at the dental schools of both universities, met formally and informally with faculty, administrators, and students, and was deeply impressed by their keen desire to develop educational and scientific programs in collaboration with NYU Dentistry – a desire which resonates strongly with NYU Dentistry’s mission to impact health globally.

South Africa is a stunningly beautiful country of vast geographic and cultural diversity. Since 1994, when apartheid ended, the country has made dramatic strides toward achieving democracy and civil rights. At the same time, however, social progress has been undermined by the AIDS epidemic, which has plunged South Africa into a new, continually worsening crisis. As a recent, first-time visitor to South Africa, I found that all of my experiences and impressions were being filtered through the prism of human suffering caused by this plague.

Given my background in oral medicine and pathology, I found myself particularly focused on initiatives in oral health care designed to prevent the spread of HIV-infection. With over 3.2 million people currently infected and an estimated 1,500 people becoming infected everyday, South Africa has a larger HIV-infected population than any other country except India. My host in Johannesburg, Professor Michael Rudolph, Head of Community Dentistry at the University of Witwatersrand, reported that he and his colleagues had conducted numerous epidemiological studies dealing with the prevalence and treatment of HIV-related oral lesions. But much remains to be done. Community-based educational programs and infection-control practices, in particular, are areas that require future study and implementation, and could benefit significantly from collaboration with NYU Dentistry.

While in Johannesburg, I traveled with Professor Rudolph’s staff in a mobile dental van to a poor, rural community outside the city, dispensed toothbrushes to the children in the village, and provided routine care. Later that day I visited a large pediatric AIDS hospital in Soweto and went on rounds with the infectious-disease physicians. It was an unforgettable, profoundly moving experience. The lesions afflicting these children require documentation, study, and treatment.

My experience at the University of Stellenbosch was equally productive and enlightening. The Dean, Dr. Wynand Dreyer, is very interested in expanding his Distance Learning Program in Postgraduate Dental Education and would like to collaborate with NYU Dentistry in achieving that goal. In the area of research, potential collaborations between our institutions could include studies in infectious diseases and infection control, early childhood caries, dental pain, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Dr. Dreyer also noted that the Department of Microbiology at the School of Oral Health Sciences had recently begun a clinical study of HIV-positive patients to identify and characterize species of oral candidiasis as potential markers for prognosis and treatment.

It is a brief journey from the University of Stellenbosch to Capetown, where I visited a community dental clinic – part of a larger, sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic located in an impoverished area of the city. I met patients, took medical histories, and performed routine head and neck exams. The extent and type of oral findings in a population that does not have access to medications for HIV-infection are devastating.

Going Forward

Over the past two years, five dental students from the University of Witwatersrand have come to NYU Dentistry for three-week periods of study. South African students studying at NYU Dentistry for longer periods would gain unparalleled clinical experience and exposure to state-of-the-art dental materials and clinical techniques, while NYU Dentistry students participating in exchange programs would gain exceptional experience treating a population in severe crisis.

In addition, NYU Dentistry techniques and expertise brought to South Africa would strengthen South African investigators’ ability to successfully pursue major, funded research grants. And joint research projects with principal investigators from all three faculties would foster increased mutual productivity and scholarship.

Never before have the possibilities for fruitful collaboration been greater, nor the need for collaboration more urgent in a spectacular country facing yet another major threat to its survival.