Dental Tribune UK & Ireland

Oral cancers may go undetected during COVID-19 crisis

DUBLIN, Ireland: According to the Irish Cancer Society, about 550 people are affected by mouth, head and neck cancers in Ireland each year. As patients are less likely to visit their dental practice owing to SARS-CoV-2 and the associated risk of infection, dentists have warned that a high number of oral cancers could be missed or diagnosed at a very late stage.

Prof. Leo Stassen, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon and president of the Irish Dental Association, has warned that late diagnosis will become a nationwide issue as the country emerges from lockdown. “I think it’s going to be a big problem,” he said to the Irish Times.

During the lockdown, Stassen identified two cases of oral cancer using photographs his patients had sent him. However, many patients do not recognise or do not act on symptoms for oral cancer because they are either concerned about possible infection with SARS-CoV-2 or unaware that emergency dental services have continued to operate during the lockdown. Before the pandemic, dentists helped to discover between 150 and 180 cases of mouth, head and neck cancers each year, noted Stassen.

Cases of oral cancer caught at an early stage have a survival rate of approximately 90% and may only require surgery. However, cases caught at a later stage of development have a decreased survival rate of only 5%–10%. Check-ups are important not only for those patients who have developed symptoms during the pandemic but also for those who have recovered from the disease. This is in order to make sure that the cancer has not returned.

Stassen said that, in the past ten to 15 years, the management of oral cancer had greatly improved, but added that, now, “COVID-19 has knocked us off our perch”.

By 13 July, there were 25,611 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ireland and 1,746 people had died from the illness, according to data from the World Health Organization.

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