By Gavin Hawes

Oral health is a major health issue which affects every single person around the world, from Birmingham to Benin the way we need to care for our oral health is the same in every corner of the globe. It sounds simple, we need to brush our teeth for two minutes twice a day, cut down on sugary foods and drinks and visit the dentist regularly.

But it is not always that simple; the provisions which are provided to some are simply not there for others, this is precisely why the Oral Health Foundation have joined forces with Mercy Ships to try and bring smiles to some of the most in need people around the world.

Together the two charities have already helped to address some of the major inequalities in oral health and tackle the burden of dental disease; but there is still an incredible amount of work to be done to change the face of oral health globally.

The two charities have formed tight relations as part of National Smile Month, the UK’s largest and longest running oral health campaign organised by the Oral Health Foundation. As the campaigns esteemed charity partner, Mercy Ships are on a mission to increase access to healthcare throughout the world by taking dental messages, education and treatment to most in need across Africa.

A dentist in a floating hospital helping those most in need

Mercy Ships operates the world’s largest floating civilian hospital, the Africa Mercy, which provides free, life-saving healthcare to countries where the services of professional medical staff are most needed. Africa Mercy is currently docked in Madagascar where its crew of more than 440 volunteers from over 40 nations is delivering free health care and education.

Dental care, is a key part of Mercy Ships work as dental services are almost non-existent in the countries they visit. This is particularly the case for Madagascar where there are only 57 qualified dentists to treat a population of 22 million.

Glasgow-based dentist, Alisa Malone, reflected on the three months she spent volunteering on-board the Africa Mercy in Madagascar:

“The first time I saw the dental screening queue was a big shock. There were over four hundred people waiting to be screened, hoping to be one of the lucky 150 selected for dental treatment. Due to the huge demand and shortage of dentists and time, we had to select those in greatest need. This happened every Monday and Thursday, and many people would return numerous times until they were chosen.

“When I first arrived in Madagascar, witnessing the level of dental neglect was very difficult. It sadly goes hand in hand with extreme poverty. Dental hygiene isn’t something that is very high on their list of priorities and many just can’t afford dental, or medical, treatment. The patients I treated in Madagascar were so grateful to be seen by a dentist. Many of them had travelled for days to visit us and most of them had never seen a dentist before.

“We had lots of children who came to see us in the dental clinic, most of them had never visited a dentist before and needed multiple extractions, it was heart-breaking.

“On a typical day I would provide up to 20 fillings and extract up to 40 teeth. I also saw a lot of severe and long-standing infections with some patients suffering large facial swellings and were in a lot of pain. The whole experience was hugely rewarding and inspiring. I have made some life-long friends on the ship and I can’t wait to go back! The work Mercy Ships does is vital to allowing people to smile across the world.

“Coming home was surprisingly hard after volunteering with Mercy Ships – you expect to experience a culture shock when visiting a new country, but actually I felt it equally when I returned home. The opportunity and provisions people have easy and freely available to them the UK and still suffer from needless oral health issues is astounding and together I hope we can inspire people to prioritise their oral health.”

Mercy Ships always aims to leave a lasting legacy in every country they visit by improving the provision of healthcare through training local people and educating people in any way they can.

A different landscape and opportunity to learn

What Mercy Ships experiences in Africa is certainly a very different oral health landscape than we see in the UK. Speaking on the stark differences Dr Nigel Carter OBE, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation said: “We are blessed in the UK; we are taught how to look after our oral health at an early age. Children have access to free NHS dental treatment until they are 18 years’ old, by which age they will hopefully be able to have full knowledge to look after their oral health throughout their life.

“Compared to the provisions that are available to the children in areas such as Madagascar we are very lucky, but there are still huge problems in the UK. We cannot escape the fact that more than 33,000 children have had to teeth extracted under general anaesthetic in the last year alone. This is mainly down to a poor oral health routine and far too easy access to sugary foods and drinks.

“To see these children suffering needlessly is heart-breaking, 90% or oral health problems are entirely preventable and I would like everyone to realise how lucky they are to have the provisions that are not available to others around the world and ensure they prioritise their oral health.

“A failure to do this can severely affect their personal development, speech, nutrition, relationships and event their further health. Poor oral health has been linked to diabetes, heart disease and even dementia.

“There is certainly a lot we can learn from each other to help strengthen children’s oral health services globally and we will continue to work arm in arm to strengthen oral health education globally.

Pledge to fight

Mercy Ships and the Oral Health Foundation have come together and pledged to strengthen their fight against unnecessary oral health problems around the world.

The work of Mercy Ships in Madagascar is indicative of the problems repeated across the world and the two charities are committed to learning from each other and helping each other to bring smiles to more people globally.

By looking to improve the education and knowledge of children, parents and carers they will give them the tools to look after their own oral health and also influence that of those around them.