WHO walks back advice to delay routine dental work, blames media

When the World Health Organization in early August advised people to postpone routine dental work during the pandemic, Pittsburgh oral surgeon Dr. Eric Smiga was livid.

“I was shocked, quite frankly. I thought it was a sad commentary from the WHO without any scientific basis,” Smiga said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to be comfortable with everything. The American Dental Association seems to be comfortable with everything, and out of left field the WHO makes a statement that makes zero sense.”

By Tuesday afternoon, WHO clarified its position. WHO Chief Dental Officer Benoit Varonne sent out an email with what appeared to be refining language, plus a dig at the media.

“In our guidance, WHO advises that routine nonemergency care be delayed until there has been a significant reduction in covid-19 transmission rates, or according to official recommendations at national, subnational or local levels,” Varonne said. “Unfortunately, a number of media headlines, intentionally or not, did not mention that the recommendation to delay routine oral health care is only suggested in an intense uncontrolled transmission scenario, a scenario that does not fit with the current situation of most countries around the world.”

Although dentists in the U.S. are not bound by WHO recommendations, the clarification seemed to satisfy Pittsburgh-area dentists, concerned their patients might take the advice to heart and opt out of getting a checkup.

“I’ve had a few patients ask me about it,” Smiga said. “The problem is you never know the patients that don’t come in because of statements like that. The worry is about the patients that aren’t coming out of their house, that refuse to go to the dentist.”

It’s all part of what has been a difficult year for Pennsylvania dentists, whose offices were effectively shut down by the state last March as sweeping covid-19 restrictions began in earnest. Dentist offices reopened for all procedures in May after new guidance was issued by state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

“The WHO advisory would have been more applicable to our region if released five months ago, when many dental offices were already closed by order of the governor,” Pittsburgh dentist Marty Supowitz said.

“In their reopening here and nationwide, most dental offices have put in place multiple systems to ensure provider and patient safety. The results are reassuring as, to the best of my knowledge, no covid-19 case has been traced back to a dental office.”

Jim Tauberg, president of the Pennsylvania Dental Association, also strongly objected to the initial WHO recommendations. He said members of his organization have proven since early in the pandemic that dentistry can be done safely.

“We are changing all of our personal protective equipment (and procedures) to be literally as if you were in the hospital environment as we make the assumption that all patients have covid,” Tauberg said. “In my humble opinion, we are actually one of the safest places to be at the current time.”

Andrew Matta, co-founder and chief medical officer of the North American Dental Group, said if society has learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that dentistry is essential.

“Oral health does connect to systemic health. We don’t want to see hospitals overrun with oral health or dental emergencies. We can facilitate those in our practices, and patients should feel incredibly safe going to the dentist because dentists are incorporating all of these enhanced measures,” Matta said.

“Is PPE something we’re going to be using long term? That will be determined.”


Article author: Paul Guggenheimer

Originally published in: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review