Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dental project in Zambia opens door to broader efforts

Bringing an oral health program to a country where such services are limited has the potential to make a major impact on residents — one that stretches even beyond healthy teeth.

In a Tuesday Annual Meeting session on global oral health efforts, Kerry Maguire of the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, Mass., discussed her work in Zambia and the ways that building an oral health program in an isolated area has transformed a village.

In 2004, Maguire, a dentist who typically works with Boston-area kids in the Forsyth Institute’s dental health program, began traveling to Zambia to treat children in an orphanage. When her team arrived, less than half of the kids had no dental problems that required treatment. Now, with yearly follow-ups and education about oral health care, that figure is closer to 80 percent. The only kids who now present with major dental issues are those who are new to the orphanage and haven’t seen a dentist before.

“That’s what I love about oral health,” she said. “You can get in there and really mop up disease pretty quickly.”

Next, Maguire and her companions traveled to Muchila, a small village two hours by car from the nearest hospital, where conditions were considerably different than what dentists are used to in the U.S.

The village had no running water and no electricity beyond a few solar panels. Those problems, combined with Zambia’s 14.5 percent HIV infection rate, made working conditions difficult.

The trip to Muchila has become an annual one — last year they saw 800 patients in just three days — and one that the group bolsters by recruiting locals to help sustain the oral health message after the team leaves.

Everyone who is seen by the dental care team receives a fluoride varnish application as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste.

However, the dental project is opening the door for other health efforts in Muchila as well, including two more water boreholes, a microfinance project to teach local women skills such as bead-making and help them gain economic independence, and the construction of a maternity hospital. And now, each year, when the dentists visit Muchila, an HIV prevention nurse tags along.

“One of the best things to come of this was the interdisciplinary approach,” Maguire said. “The magnetism of a dental component can’t be overestimated. Providing this least accessible service has opened the door to other health providers.”

— C.T.

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