Surely people don’t die from tooth decay?

Posted in: Blog, by Bridge2Aid Team, on 10th October 2013 | 0 comments

Seems impossible? Unimaginable, but unfortunately all too common, as I found out recently.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner hosted by one of our foundation donors visiting from the UK. Taking place on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, where we are based, I sat next to a US surgeon who was on a short-term visit with one of the foundations. As well as working within our local city of Mwanza she was carrying out surgery in one of the district hospitals where our emergency dental training teams have worked. As we chatted, the subject turned to this training, which we’ve been providing in the Lake Zone.

Although I knew that complications from untreated dental disease could cause real problems for people living in this part of the world, the comments that my dinner companion made about her patients shocked me. Many needed major surgery to remove diseased tissue caused by untreated dental infection. As she explained, when a dental infection fails to ‘drain’ properly, the infection can track into the neck and then spread into the chest. This leads to tissue necrosis (tissue death) and septicemia (severe infection in the blood), often fatal. Treatment is to cut away the necrotic tissue and give high doses of antibiotics.

Sadly, as she reflected, this very rarely works. Once a person has reached the stage where infection is tracking into their neck, the prognosis is not good. It was one of the enduring memories, and frustrations, from her visit. She summed it up with a comment at the end of dinner:

“If I had my way, I would  train an army of people to take teeth out safely. What people need in the villages here is someone who can simply remove a diseased tooth, and stop the infection spreading.”

It is 2013 and people are still dying from untreated dental decay.

Today two of our teams will return from the regions of Musoma and Bukoba, where for the last 10 days they have been training local health workers (clinical officers) in emergency dentistry.  Next week there will be 12 medically-qualified people who are now able to treat their communities day in, day out, helping to prevent development of the hideous conditions that my dinner companion was seeing all too often.

The shocking reality is that three-quarters of the world’s population have no access to even the most basic dental services. Dental Caries – or tooth decay – is the world’s most common disease. It causes debilitating pain and drastically affects a person’s ability to function. Most developing countries don’t have enough dentists: for example, here in Tanzania there is one dentist for approximately every 100,000 people (in the UK  the ratio is 1:2,500). To make matters worse, these dentists live in cities and large towns, where only a quarter  of the population lives. This lack of access to pain relief for the majority leads to enduring suffering, loss of the ability to work and support the family, withdrawal of children from school to help support subsistence farming, and as outlined above, complications that can and do lead to death.

The idea of ‘access to a dentist in every village’ is Utopia. What we believe is necessary, and where our partnership with the Tanzanian government is leading the way, is to train medical personnel already deployed to these rural areas to provide a basic, pain relieving service, combined with oral health education. We’re extending that partnership elsewhere in Africa now, backed by the support of many western dental professionals. Obviously oral health education is important to prevent future problems. We could also raise the number of dentists available to treat people in towns and cities. But above all we must focus on relieving dental pain, through training, so that local medics can carry out safe tooth extractions. Otherwise, literally, a toothache can kill.

To continue this work, we need you! Our plans to expand this year will only be made possible if we can find the volunteer and financial support to make it happen.

If you are dentally qualified, you can volunteer for one or our training teams. You could help us by raising funds to make the training possible for more people, or you can make a difference through a regular financial donation. Whatever your contribution, I hope you’ll join with us and play your part in making death from untreated dental infections a thing of the past.

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