Elisha Riggs

Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, The McCaughey Centre: Melbourne School of Population Health, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences

 1. Could you give a brief sketch of what your current project is and how you started it? Was there one person, group or experience that encouraged you to get involved in this area?

My research interests are in child public health inequity and inequalities which have a strong focus on addressing the social determinants and social inclusion. I work on a range of related complex public health interventions requiring strong and sustained community partnerships.

One of the projects that I work on, which also forms the basis of my PhD is called Teeth Tales. The project started initally from a conversation with a health promotion officer who had heard about traditional oral health practices being used in refugee communities. Combined with the increased rates in hosptial admissions for children from culturally diverse backgrounds requiring dental treatment, together we wanted to understand this community issue more. Subsequently, we were successful in obtaining project funding and I decided to make the most of the opportunity and enrolled to complete my PhD on the topic.

Teeth Tales focuses on the extremely important area of social, cultural and environmental influences on preschool oral health inequalities in refugee and migrant communities. This research works within a cultural competency framework and incorporates health promotion and community based participatory research methodologies, which actively involves the community at all stages of the research process

2. During the time that you began your project until now, how have your views of the issue/people and the project changed?

This project started in 2006 and has since recieved a further 3 years of funding to implement and evaluate a community-based intervention. Working with refugee and migrant communties is complex and requires developing innovative methodologies for working ethically and appropriately with the communities.  Much research excludes culturally diverse groups as research participants for reasons such as high costs, language and cultural barriers and little understanding of the issues that they might face. However, these communities are some of the most disadvantaged in the developed world and must be included in health promotion research to empower and strengthen their communties.  I am committed to conducting meaningful and useful research in partnership with refugee and migrant communities.

3. What major challenges throughout the project did you face?

There have been no challenges in particular that I have faced throughout the project, however ensuring continuous funding is an ongoing issue for most health promotion research. Much dedication is required to write many funding applications which can be challenging. Working in partnership with the community does have its challenges, however developing strong reciprocal partnerships helps to build trust and ensures meaningful research

4. Can you discuss some of your major discoveries?

The Teeth Tales project has revealed new knowedge in the understanding of how we might address health issues in refugee and migrant communties. One finding of interest has been a deeper understanding of miswak as an oral hygiene practice. Miswak has been used since ancient times. The use of miswak is a common traditional oral hygiene practice used by a number of culturally diverse groups particulalry by Muslims. Miswak is chewing/brushing stick that comes from a particular tree found across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In addition to it being used as an oral hygiene aid, the miswak has strong traditional, cultural and religious associations. Miswak is usually used five times a day as part of the cleansing process that is completed before prayer. Many health and spiritual benefits are associated with miswak use. Miswak is a form of natural medicine and is a popular oral hygiene tool as it is low in cost, readily available and simple to use. Within many Islamic cultures Salvadora persica is considered to have significant antibacterial and antifungal effects and is thought to be effective against the bacteria that cause plaque and periodontal diseases. The WHO Consensus Report on Oral Hygiene supports its use by stating that miswak may have a role to play in the promotion of oral hygiene, and warrants further evaluation of its effectiveness. The miswak is just one example that has its origins deep within a community’s religious, health and social culture. Such practices need to be understood, respected and incorporated within oral health promotion, treatment and policies in order to reduce the inequalities experienced in our communities.

5. How do you see your research impacting the lives of those you worked with (or the lives of those impacted by the issue you were researching)? How do you see your research impacting the field of health promotion?

To assist in reducing oral health inequalities, we need to build the capacity of dental and general health professions to comprehend the complex beliefs, behaviours and expectations of newly emerging migrant communities. This requires further research, conducted in partnership with these diverse communities to understand the use and effectiveness of traditional oral health practices. Greater awareness of cultural differences, traditional practices and oral health beliefs is needed in order to improve the oral health of refugee and migrant groups. We found the miswak was just one example that has its origins deep within the community’s religious, health and social culture. Such practices need to be understood, respected and incorporated within oral health care, policies and practices – where appropriate and acceptable by the community.

6. What are your plans for future work/research?

I hope to complete my PhD this year and continue working with refugee and migrant families to address the signifant inequaities that they expereince.

I enjoy being involved in ISECN as it is a great way of gaining a better understanding of health promotion internationally. I also wanted to meet like-minded people who were working across a number of different sectors in different areas of health promotion to get a better understanding of the different types of health promotion work being conducted globally.

I’m also interested in ensuring that young health promotion professionals and students are included in discussions and the decisions that are being made in the health promotion field that affect the ways in which we conduct our work.

7. Is there anything else we should know about you?

I enjoy travelling, going to the beach, doing fun runs and spending time with my family and friends!

 Published: 2010

You can also read Elisha’s bio.

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