U of T students, prof help propel noma onto WHO's neglected disease list

“The effort by a group of dental students with one professorial support has helped lead to a result that could ultimately change the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable children on the planet”

Sakina, age four, appears in Restoring Dignity, a documentary about noma survivors (© Claire Jeantet - Fabrice Catérini/Inediz)

The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry played an instrumental role in the recent inclusion of noma on the World Health Organization’s official list of neglected tropical diseases – a move that will have an enormous impact on future global efforts to control the disease.

Noma, which occurs when bacteria and microbes quickly destroy facial bones and tissues, is a preventable disease. It typically affects young children in impoverished communities and leads to severe facial disfigurements and often death, with a mortality rate of up to 90 per cent.

U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry has been advocating for noma’s inclusion on the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) list for several years, lending its support to a global campaign that has been led by the Nigerian government.

“Seeing noma for the first time was life-altering,” says Joel Rosenbloom, director of student life and assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Faculty of Dentistry. “I felt a deep sense of embarrassment to be a member of humanity, knowing that noma exists and that we ignored it for so long.”

That experience prompted Rosenbloom to work with dentistry students to form the Noma Action Group (NAG) in 2020.

The group has since played a pivotal role in the international campaign to have noma listed as a neglected tropical disease, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), will help “amplify global awareness, catalyse research, stimulate funding, and boost efforts to control the disease through multisectoral and multi-pronged approaches.”

Front row, left to right: Andrew Seto, Riya George, Hartirath Brar, Ocarina Zheng and Athena Zhao. Middle row, left to right: Hellen Huang, Ken He, Zoha Anjum and Camryn Rohringer. Back row, left to right: Ifeanyichukwu Ezeliorah, Cassandra Collins, Shirin Esfahani and Joel Rosenbloom. Absent: Sharon Yoon (photo by James Long)

The road to getting noma included on the WHO list wasn’t an easy one. Rosenbloom and former Faculty of Dentistry Dean Dan Haas encouraged Canada’s minister of health to write a letter to support the Nigerian government’s dossier for noma’s inclusion, laying the groundwork to influence other ministers around the world to do the same. As a result, there are now 32 letters of support globally.

Over the past few years, NAG has held multiple noma events such as lectures and guest speakers at U of T and other dental schools across Canada. NAG chapters are now forming at Western University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba and Dalhousie University.

“This is an example of the power of advocacy and I am beyond proud of the Faculty [of Dentistry]’s role in this achievement,” says Rosenbloom. “The effort by a group of dental students with one professorial support has helped lead to a result that could ultimately change the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable children on the planet.”

Rosenbloom notes that it is ultimately the vote at the World Health Assembly which will determine next steps and specific accountabilities such as increasing awareness, funding and supporting those affected by the disease.

“The fight is not over,” he says. “But I am very hopeful. This literally has the ability to change the world. It’s the first step toward eradicating this disease.”


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