Gold Coast research helps fight against oral cancer in India

Dr Bhawna Gupta working with a patient. She says improved public health education and policies are vital in India
Dr Bhawna Gupta working with a patient. She says improved public health education and policies are vital in India

Dr Bhawna Gupta left India to pursue a career in public health research, but her work is all in the name of fighting an epidemic back in her homeland.

According to the Griffith University PhD graduate, the Indian subcontinent accounts for a third of the global burden of cancers of the lip and oral cavity. Dr Gupta adds that in India the disease is the most common malignancy among men and the third most common among women.

“Cancers of the mouth and tongue, taken together, overshadow cancer of the lung in most of the Indian population-based cancer registries,” says Dr Gupta.

“I conducted a hospital-based case-control study in the city of Pune in western India. The data was collected by face-to-face interviews and by intra-oral examinations on 187 oral cancer cases and 240 controls.

“This study aimed to quantify the associations between oral hygiene habits, dietary factors, chewing/smoking tobacco and alcohol consumption on the risk of the occurrence of cancers of the oral cavity in an Indian setting.

“I also evaluated the extent to which chewing tobacco modifies the association between oral hygiene habits and oral cancer, hypothesising that elevated risk of the disease is independently associated with poor oral hygiene habits.”

Dr Gupta says the results provide scientifically sound and practically applicable evidence that will assist policy-makers and other stakeholders regarding cancer prevention programs and policies.

Since beginning her research in Australia five years ago, Dr Gupta — who also has a Master of International Public Health from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Dental Surgery gained in India — has published research findings in more than a dozen international publications. These include the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, PLOS One, Cancer Epidemiology, Asia Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, British Dental Journal and Oral Oncology.

After completing her masters, she returned to India and worked with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the National Tobacco Control Programme, before deciding to pursue her PhD at Griffith University. She was also awarded the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award, supporting her PhD study.

Her ultimate goal is to work in the field of public health and to continue research through international collaboration. In a letter to the British Dental Journal published in April last year, Dr Gupta stated that by the year 2020, the addition of tongue and mouth sites will make oral cancer the leading cancer site for men throughout most of India.

She also urged the importance of drawing attention about tobacco-related cancers to authorities, public health specialists, clinicians and policy-makers.

“Improved public health education and promotion is vital, as are top-down policy approaches,” says Dr Gupta. “Policy should be extended to include the control of consumption of all forms of smokeless tobacco.

“Although excellent work on the control of the continuing epidemic of oral cancer in India is ongoing, more awareness is needed.

“It is important to elevate the awareness of smokeless tobacco, areca nut chewing and oral cancer as rising problems alongside tobacco smoking for the Indian nation and South-East Asia.”