It was little Masiko who sat on the old wooden bench in the mud-walled classroom with her eyes fixed in a steady gaze as she watched me show the children how to brush. It was her tattered princess dress, her hair decorated with colourful beads, her curious soft eyes that instantly triggered that set of emotions I will never forget. It is that sense of achievement that you have made a difference to them which gives me desire to do more for the children every time, and when you leave, you excitedly plan that next trip because you know it will be so rewarding and so valuable.
My name is Anne Powders and I am a dental hygienist working in the UK. I grew up in India and my passion for the East is as strong as ever. I have volunteered and travelled with the charity Dentaid to encourage improved oral health in disadvantaged communities in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Morocco.
As a dental community, our work is so important, not only for the oral health promotion but for the general health and wellbeing of people. Three quarters of the world’s children suffer the pain of tooth decay and WHO recognises it as a pandemic. Oral diseases affect nearly 3.5 billion people and more than 530 million children suffer dental caries in primary dentition. We clearly have a lot to do.
I am excited to be involved in a new project for Uganda, a low-income sub-Saharan country with widespread poverty. The dentist to population ratio is 1: 158,000 – 39% of whom are based in the capital Kampala. Oral health services are considered a low priority and the population experience an uneven distribution in Uganda. Yet tooth decay and pain disrupts and restricts attendance at school, with a study showing that toothbrushing alone can reduce absenteeism by 27%.
At times I have felt completely overwhelmed by the extent of dental need in young children. There is so much pain, pain from the rampant caries and baby-bottle tooth decay. Chewing on sugar cane, pacified by the sweet sugar syrups and drinking Cola all contribute to the extensive carious lesions in so many young children’s mouths. Volunteering is exhilarating, challenging, overwhelming, desperate.
Teams of Dentaid volunteers give their time, energy and money to work hard in dental clinics in rural Uganda each year. The focus is on acute pain relief as well as on prevention and oral health education. They work with a small team of local dentists and health assistants to make this possible, and at the end of the challenging day move on to another desperate community.
What if we could design and help implement a dental health project that could be run and supported locally? What if we could create a project that was sustainable, that the local health workers could own as theirs? What if we could target young children in the primary schools and support them with daily toothbrushing and handwashing in a preventative way? I had so many ideas but was struggling as to how to implement them. Thankfully Victoria Wilson, hygienist and founder of the Smile Revolution platform and training courses, is helping me bring this Ugandan oral health promotion project to fruition, and I am grateful that Philips Oral Healthcare has sponsored this mentorship. I am delighted that they see the potential in me and in this vision.
Toowa in Uganda is where we are planning to run a pilot project for the preventive programme. It is an impoverished, rural, low income area, with a high proportion of women and children. We want to empower people to improve their oral health sustainably with daily toothbrushing and handwashing education courses at the core of a programme for improved dental health and wellbeing in Toowa primary school.
Victoria helped me channel all my energy and passion into the project, taught me how to organise and target support and sponsorship, and has given me the tools to make the project a successful venture, in the hope that it can be rolled out to other primary schools in the area at a later stage once the model has been proven.
With the support of Dentaid I am producing innovative content to support toothbrushing and handwashing skills which can be taught and implemented in developing countries as well as empowering teachers and children to improve their oral health and healthy living. It is at an early stage but I am convinced that we are heading the right direction.
I want to thank you Dentaid, Victoria Wilson and Philips for giving me the means to achieve this.