While many parents in rural Vhembe unknowingly neglect the oral health of their children, Dr Phumudzo Machaka (47) has established an outreach project to visit special schools for children who are disabled to tackle oral health problems.

One day every week

With the use of mobile dental machinery and equipment, Dr Machaka has dedicated a day in the week to visit schools and help address unrecognised oral health problems children face such as tooth decay, gum disease, tooth loss, and oral cancer.

“We understand that most oral health problems can be prevented if they are diagnosed at an early stage. Therefore, children at special schools are our primary target for now. Starting with Tshilwavhusiku Razwimisani Special School, we managed to address several challenges among the children such as cleaning their teeth or removing painful ones.” says Dr Machaka.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines oral health as “a state of being free from chronic mouth and facial pain, oral and throat cancer, oral infection and sores, periodontal disease, tooth decay, tooth loss, and other diseases and disorders that limit an individual’s capacity in biting, chewing, smiling, speaking, and psychosocial wellbeing”.

“As we move, we will also be able to pick up and mitigate early signs of oral diseases such as cancers. Children will also be able to understand that all health, including oral health, is very important to one’s life,” he says.

‘Bringing hope and optimal happiness to children’

Machaka believes that oral health problems can lead to mental health challenges. He says children who have dental problems tend to be bullied in school, making it difficult for them to lead a normal life or speak without being self-conscious.

 “On one hand, I think anyone would find it difficult to concentrate in pain and so taking away toothaches (which can be excruciatingly severe) that are caused by oral diseases may, in turn, improve a child’s level of concentration in class. On the other hand, a smile is very important for a person. Our outreach also aims to bring hope and optimal happiness to children. This way children won’t have to restrict their level of joy or ability to speak publicly because of the fear of a bad smile,” he says.

“For many years I have had the urge to help less fortunate children in rural areas this way, but due to shortage of resources to operate outside the surgery, it was difficult to see the dream manifest. Nonetheless, I’m happy that we were finally able to start the project last week. Till today, not all people can afford to pay for services at a dentist, particularly the previously disadvantaged communities and it is important for us to contribute to our communities and their future, through children,” adds Dr Machaka.

A serious concern

Affecting over 3.5 billion people worldwide, oral diseases are the most common noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and can affect people throughout their lifetime, causing pain, discomfort, disfigurement and even death, indicates WHO. According to a recently published study in The Lancet about oral health, sugar consumption is the underlying cause of tooth decay, with untreated dental decay being the most common health condition worldwide, and lip and oral cavity among the top most common cancers.

According to WHO, there are seven oral diseases and conditions which account for most of the oral disease burden: tooth decay, gum diseases, oral cancers, oral manifestations of HIV, oro-dental trauma, cleft lip and palate and noma. Almost all these diseases and conditions are either largely preventable or can be treated in their early stages. 

Mahlatse Malatji, a community member, believes that if children are taught to brush and take care of their own teeth at an early age it can help to prevent problems people have. 

“I believe that brushing your teeth at an early age can reduce the oral health problems if it is done regularly and correctly. Teaching children how to brush their teeth while they are still young, will grow into a good habit for them to take proper care of their oral health as they grow up. I worry about the lack of oral health awareness, especially in rural areas. Most of us lack proper knowledge on how to take care of our [teeth],” says Malatji.

Shandukani Mudau, a parent, says children in her family are taught how to take care of their teeth when they turn three years old. “We have a rule at home that when a child turns three, they are old enough to start brushing their teeth [on their own] and through this way, they grew up to be responsible individuals who are able to take care of their oral health, which is important,” she says. – Health-e News