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Migrant workers’ oral health stays on her mind

Published: March 16 2009

Virginia Dodd

Assistant Professor of Health, Education and Behavior College of Health and Human Performance

For Virginia Dodd, all roads lead to Wimauma.

Nearly 15 years ago, when Dodd was a dental hygienist, she performed oral screenings on children and adults in the small Florida town.

Now, after graduate school, eight years as a UF professor and research pursuits in such varied topics as adolescent alcohol consumption, obesity and farm injuries, Dodd has returned to that same section of Hillsborough County, just south of Tampa, to study oral cancer and oral health care disparities in the town’s large Hispanic migrant worker population.

In Wimauma, even workers who have medical insurance often can’t afford dental insurance. And since tooth pain and bleeding gums aren’t debilitating enough to prevent workers from going to the fields, it’s usually not worth spending the time or money to see a dentist, Dodd said.

As oral cancer continues to plague rural and minority populations, she said, screenings are necessary to prevent not just tooth decay, but death.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 35,000 people are diagnosed with mouth and throat cancer every year, and more than 7,500 of these cases are fatal.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to break down the barriers to oral health care,” she said.

Before Dodd studied communities where oral care is considered a luxury, she was a dental hygienist at an upscale practice. While she loved her work, she left the office every day with more questions than answers, she said.

In 1995, Dodd went with a church group to perform free oral screenings for people in Wimauma, where the disparities between what she saw and what she was used to in the office helped her consider a shift in her career.

“I was really just struck by the differences in the level of care,” she said.

Looking for a way to change oral care in the community, she went to graduate school to study community and family dental health at the University of South Florida, where she received her doctorate in 2000.

Last year, her grant to study oral cancer in Wimauma’s migrant worker population was approved.

She partnered with the colleagues at the Southeast Center for Research to Reduce Disparities in Oral Health, a multi-disciplinary center at the UF College of Dentistry whose goal is to eliminate disparities in head and neck cancer prevention, detection and survival, and the Moffitt Cancer Center at USF in Tampa that promotes community-based intervention in oral health care.

It intrigues Dodd to think that the adults she’s studying now might have been the same children she screened for oral problems when she was a hygienist, and she’s happy to be working in the same community, she said. In addition, her co-principal investigator on the project just happens to be her old office mate from graduate school.

“I kind of had to take a detour to get some information, but I got there,” she said with a laugh. “When people say life’s a circle, it is. I just hope it doesn’t turn into a knot.”

Photo credit: Ray Carson — University Photography

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