By Dr. Anthony T. Vernillo
of Oral Pathology
The relationship between
South African dental schools and NYUCD, initiated in the early 1990s by
Dr. William Greenfield, then associate dean for international affairs, has
deepened over the years. Today NYUCD welcomes South African dentists to
the Advanced Programs for International Dentists and promotes bidirectional
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 NYUCD a desire which resonates strongly with
NYUCDs 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
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 NYUCD.
l to r: Dr. Vernillo with the Dreyer Family
While in Johannesburg, I traveled with Professor Rudolphs 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 NYUCD 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.
Over the past two years, five dental students from the University of Witwatersrand
have come to NYUCD for three-week periods of study. South African students
studying at NYUCD for longer periods would gain unparalleled clinical experience
and exposure to state-of-the-art dental materials and clinical techniques,
while NYUCD students participating in exchange programs would gain exceptional
experience treating a population in severe crisis.
In addition, NYUCD 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
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.