Most of us have suffered from toothache (oral pain) at some point in our lives. It can be debilitating, constant, and excruciating. It is something we would immediately look to address by reaching for pain relief or booking an urgent visit to the dentist. But for many people, this is not possible; over 70% of the world’s population does not have access to a dentist.
And it is in the rural areas of developing countries across Africa and elsewhere that dentists are most sorely needed. As traditional diets increasingly incorporate sugar-filled western foodstuffs we are seeing dental decay rise dramatically, leading to debilitating and painful tooth infections. Experiencing pain, problems with communicating, eating and smiling due to dental decay leave people ostracised from communities, unable to work or attend school. It is estimated that toothache is the reason for millions of school and work hours lost each year throughout the world. Lacking access to basic dental care is a serious problem, and if not treated appropriately, can lead to infection and even death.
Bridge2Aid has developed a model that provides training for local health workers. The training is carried out by volunteer dentists, nurses, hygienists and therapists from the UK and other parts of the world. For over a decade Bridge2Aid has demonstrated success in both Tanzania and Rwanda, making access to life-changing treatment available to more than 4 million people.
In this interview, Paul Tasman the Project Manager at Bridge2aid shares more on the ongoing initiatives and plans for the future.
What motivated the launch of Bridge2Aid?
Bridge2Aid was formed because we became aware of the terrible problems of oral health in rural Tanzania. Away from the cities, there are often no dentists or dental provision so people can suffer for months and years, and their health can suffer terribly.
Why are you particularly passionate about dental health?
We use our mouth to talk, eat, kiss and smile. Oral health and general health are strongly linked – oral health is a vital part of primary healthcare. Caries (tooth decay that can lead to pain and infection) is the most prevalent non-communicable disease in the world, and untreated oral pain and infections mean that it becomes difficult to sleep, work or attend classes.
You target developing countries were a significant number of people lack access to basic health. How many of these countries are African?
At the minute we work only in Tanzania. We are working with the Ministry of Health there to help strengthen the healthcare infrastructure by giving new skills to existing rural health workers (clinical officers).
Do you have plans to expand your services to other African countries?
We would very much like to extend the work that we do. But would seek to work in tandem with government and ensure that our work is needed and fits with the healthcare policies and strategy of any new country.
You train rural-based health workers in developing countries, providing them with the skills, equipment, and resources that they will need to provide emergency dental care. How many health workers have you trained in Africa till date?
We have trained over 500 clinical officers in Tanzania. Bridge2Aid has been running training programmes there since 2004.
What has been the impact of these training not only in terms of health improvement but also in terms of economic enhancement for trained health workers with who are now skilled and can offer their professional service in the future?
To put it into perspective across the developing world more working days are lost to tooth pain than to malaria. By giving new skills to professionals who are already in post we are ensuring that millions of people have access to affordable emergency dental treatment near to where they live. By ensuring that rural communities are able to get treatment very early on they are being saved from years of pain and disruption to their work and family lives.
Our vision is a world free from dental pain. How much of this vision has so far been achieved? What are the numbers of improved livelihoods?
Each of the clinical officers that we have trained will on average be responsible for a community of 10,000 people. This means that potentially 5 million or more rural Tanzanians now have a way out of pain and infection that they can access and afford.