Oro-facial Gangrene (noma/cancrum Oris): Pathogenetic Mechanisms

Crit Rev Oral Biol Med. 2000;11(2):159-71. doi: 10.1177/10454411000110020201.


Cancrum oris (Noma) is a devastating infectious disease which destroys the soft and hard tissues of the oral and para-oral structures. The dehumanizing oro-facial gangrenous lesion affects predominantly children ages 2 to 16 years, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the estimated frequency in some communities varies from 1 to 7 cases per 1000 population. The risk factors are poverty, malnutrition, poor oral hygiene, residential proximity to livestock in unsanitary environments, and infectious diseases, particularly measles and those due to the herpesviridae. Infections and malnutrition impair the immune system, and this is the common denominator for the occurrence of noma. Acute necrotizing gingivitis (ANG) and oral herpetic ulcers are considered the antecedent lesions, and ongoing studies suggest that the rapid progression of these precursor lesions to noma requires infection by a consortium of micro-organisms, with Fusobacterium necrophorum (Fn) and Prevotella intermedia (Pi) as the suspected key players. Additional to production of a growth-stimulating factor for Pi, Fn displays a classic endotoxin, a dermonecrotic toxin, a cytoplasmic toxin, and a hemolysin. Without appropriate treatment, the mortality rate from noma is 70-90%. Survivors suffer the two-fold afflictions of oro-facial mutilation and functional impairment, which require a time-consuming, financially prohibitive surgical reconstruction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Africa South of the Sahara
  • Bacteroidaceae Infections / complications
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communicable Diseases / complications
  • Communicable Diseases / immunology
  • Cytotoxins / physiology
  • Dermotoxins / physiology
  • Disease Progression
  • Endotoxins / physiology
  • Fusobacterium Infections / complications
  • Fusobacterium necrophorum / physiology
  • Gingivitis, Necrotizing Ulcerative / complications
  • Hemolysin Proteins / physiology
  • Humans
  • Noma / etiology*
  • Noma / immunology
  • Noma / microbiology
  • Nutrition Disorders / complications
  • Nutrition Disorders / immunology
  • Oral Hygiene
  • Poverty
  • Prevotella intermedia / physiology
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Risk Factors
  • Sanitation
  • Stomatitis, Herpetic / complications


  • Cytotoxins
  • Dermotoxins
  • Endotoxins
  • Hemolysin Proteins