Who, What, Why: John Button on a neglected tropical disease

The second-year student in the School of Dental Medicine is working to raise awareness of a gangrenous infection called noma and map where cases happen.

John Button poses in dental school lab.
John Button is a second-year student in the School of Dental Medicine who is researching and raising awareness of noma.
    • Who

      John Button is a second-year student in the School of Dental Medicine also pursuing a master’s degree in oral and population health, and he wants everyone to know about noma. It’s a gangrenous infection of the face and jaws that is often fatal, a condition the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized as a neglected tropical disease in December. Button says he has never met anyone in person with noma, which largely affects malnourished and impoverished children, but wants someday to work as a maxillofacial—head and neck—surgeon, helping noma survivors.

      Button says he has always been interested in medicine, and that growing up in a rural town in Massachusetts showed him how difficult it is for some people to access medical care. After his father lost a front tooth in an accident, Button says he saw the way oral surgery could restore someone’s confidence and was inspired to pursue a career in dentistry.

      From a young age, Button says he also knew he wanted to work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—Doctors Without Borders—and double-majored in biochemistry and French at Tufts University, since many MSF missions require that surgeons speak French.

      For a French class assignment to write about a topic of interest, he reached out to Melissa Amundson, a U.S.-based maxillofacial trauma surgeon volunteering with MSF. Amundson is a consulting surgeon with MSF at the Noma Children’s Hospital in Sokoto, Nigeria, and their conversation was the first time Button heard of noma.

    • Why

      “It keeps me up at night, knowing that there are kids out there who are suffering from this disease,” Button says. His long-term goal is “to see if we can figure out a way to predict why one child is going to get noma or which child is going to develop noma, so we have a better understanding of to whom and where we should divert medical supplies and attention, to have the best outcomes for patients.”

      Button also wants to see more priority given to dental health worldwide. “Dentistry is medicine, dentistry is health, and health is health,” he says. “I really dislike the historical perspective and idea that dentistry is a separate discipline from medicine, because we know, and are learning more every day, how dental diseases affect systemic health.”