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Providing so much more than just dentistry

Dental aid for smiles

The Smile Vanuatu team have just returned from their annual trip to Malekula Island. Our mission’s focus on the promotion of healthy habits to enable future generations to maintain their smile. Education and prevention has always being the NAMBAWAN (number one) message which fits in with Vanuatu’s culture of National awareness campaigns.

Overcome challenges by working together, creative problem solving and the right attitude

It is such a privilege to spend time in someone else’s country and always be made to feel so welcome. Dr’s Mark, Noel Nathan, Ephraime and Pascal always make our team feel so at home and at ease, ensuring at all times we are well looked after. Even though Malekula is one of the biggest islands (population approximately 36,000) in the Vanuatu chain it is still considered rural and remote, with running water and electricity not always available.

Due to a promotion, there is currently no resident dentist and the dental equipment available is in need of repair. We are so fortunate to always be provided single-use dental instruments and supplies that we can bring along to ensure treatment delivery in an infection-controlled environment. This also helps us to ensure that no additional work falls on the already busy Norsup Hospital staff and community who allow us to work alongside them.

Eight of our self-funded volunteers arrived armed with donated bamboo toothbrushes, dental instruments, throat scopes and ‘giant teeth’ props. They provided 630 children and 20 teachers with these toothbrushes, dental check-ups and emergency dental treatment. Of the community members treated, 37% presented with active dental decay and 10% had pain related dental infections.

Barriers such as those listed below are contributing to the rise in oral disease in the area:

  • Impact of the social determinants of health
  • Maldistribution of workforce
  • Access to specialist services
  • Navigating transport options

Setting up a system for change

After implementing an oral health survey funded by multiple international NGOs in 2017, the Ministry of Health’s Oral Health Team have been working to develop a strategic plan for oral health. Dr Jenny Stephens and her team initiated the Malekula Island Health Promoting Schools Committee to implement multi-functional health policies into schools on the Island. Starting with parents, then teachers and children, they seek to help local schools who promote healthy eating, positive BMIs and personal hygiene. For their programmes to be successful, volunteers are urgently required.

Outreach scope for 2019-2021

  • 7 kindy, 5 primary, 3 secondary schools
  • 2000 children require donations of bamboo toothbrushes and toiletries
  • Health promotion education which includes personal hygiene; hand, hair and oral health
  • Oral health checks and treatment twice per year

Knowledge Sharing

At the invitation of Norsup Hospital, a dedicated team of eight volunteers consisting of speech pathologists, dental therapists and physiotherapists flew to Vanuatu. Using classrooms and makeshift dental rooms, they explained the importance of the mouth and a healthy body. Talking to the children of Lokotoro and Uripiv Island schools, they asked them three questions:

  1. Put your hand up if you do not have a mouth or any teeth?
  2. Put your hand up if you do not like eating?
  3. Put your hand up if you don’t talk?

With the assistance of the local teachers for translation, the volunteers explained the importance of the mouth’s position at the beginning of the digestive system. Using visual aids, they demonstrated how quality of life can be greatly impacted by its health. Following the sessions, the children understood that healthy teeth and gums are important for speech and confidence, while also being aware of the damage that can be caused by pain and dental disease (absence from school, inability to eat, ongoing infections and serious medical conditions).

The impact of the Smile Vanuatu programme

The Smile Vanuatu school-based programme helps bring aid and assistance to those in need. Like all communities in Vanuatu large and small, Malekula lacks health staff due to funding shortages. Access to an oral health practitioner is generally only available in the main centres of Luganville on Santo Island and in the main city of Port Vila on Efate Island. For one week a year, a dental team including an assistant and a dentist fly in from Luganville to work with the Smile Vanuatu volunteers on the programme. In that week they also try to help children in local schools which is on top of their already hectic workloads.

The collaborative approach of the Smile Vanuatu programme brings allied health professionals and local medical staff together. During this trip, speech pathologists conducted education sessions for hospital staff on tongue tie and assisting stroke victims. Apart from tooth decay, acute pain and extractions, tongue tie is also identified and referred for specialist care. It has been noted that tongue tie contributes to further complications in later life. If it is identified and treated early, feeding and speech ability can improve and dental diseases can be reduced.

An unexpected challenge for our hearts

This year our volunteers witnessed a challenge they have never had to imagine in their first world lives. The birth of a girl with a unilateral cleft lip and palate during our time here. She was lucky, the local hospital nurses and doctors had the expertise to immediately recognise that she could not breastfeed. Working together with Dr Noel Nathan, the Acting Manager of Norsup Hospital, we were connected with a local volunteer National Cleft Support Group based in Port Vila. Through their assistance, a special feeding bottle designed for cleft palate sufferers was airlifted to the hospital.

Our team also supplied tins of baby formula, each costing over $30 AUD, which is more than a local could make in one days work. With these donations and the care given to her at her local hospital, this little girl has an excellent chance to thrive and attend a consultation for her clefting in 2020.

Unlike Australia, Vanuatu does not offer cleft babies the same ongoing care into adulthood. The referral pathway is long and difficult, with many costs to the child and family members. They need to leave their established family support systems on the rural island and bear the expense of living in Port Vila for up to a month for consultations and surgery with Australian NGO, Interplast. Specialising in providing surgical services to those who cannot afford or access them, their volunteers travel annually to Port Vila Central Hospital from Melbourne to assist those they can.

To further help this situation, Smile Vanuatu’s affiliate charity Australian’s Advancing Oral Health in Vanuatu Inc is now supporting children born with cleft palates through Vanuatu Cleft Support. If you would like to help them make a difference, you can give a tax-deductible donation here

The Smile Vanuatu team aims to work collaboratively to increase access to health care services and improve health outcomes for those living in regional and remote Malekula Island. For anyone looking to work with Smile Vanuatu on their 2020 trip, you can contact them directly or visit their website here.   

If you would like to find out more about the charities and volunteer groups we work with, you can view these on our Charities page.