UK charity poised to send dentists on mission to Rwanda

Dentist at work
Image caption British dentists have to work in very different conditions to those they are used to in the UK

A British dental charity is about to start work in Rwanda, a country that has only 11 qualified dentists.

The charity Bridge2Aid developed its expertise in treating and training people in deprived rural areas of Tanzania.

Volunteer British dentists have already helped hundreds of Tanzanians overcome debilitating toothache.

But now they are poised to take their work into the central African country, where many have never seen a dentist.

Often the volunteer dentists who have already worked in Tanzania return to the country for another visit.

One of them is Clare Roberts, who I find busy packing for her latest trip.

Tools of the Trade

On the floor of her living room is a piece of sterilizing equipment that looks just like a pressure cooker.

Which, as Clare explains, is exactly what it turns out to be.

"It sterilises the instruments using steam. It's a very compact thing so we can transport it easily" explains Clare.

Image caption Dentist Clare Roberts works with a minimal amount of equipment in Tanzania

Laid out on a small table are the most basic tools of Clare's trade.

There are swabs, gloves and disinfectant, some blue cotton "scrubs" that the dentists wear over their clothes, and some scary looking forceps, sealed up in protective bags.

It's a very pared down version of the equipment Clare uses in her day job as a dentist at Leeds General Infirmary.

But then Clare is about to set off for Tanzania and as she says, working conditions will be very different.

"Primarily it's the lack of equipment and the actual environment you'll be working in - it's very basic.

"You have to make do with no running water or electricity. And the patients themselves are going to be very different.

"There's a language barrier and they may not be used to receiving dental treatment, so there's all sorts of things that make it a big challenge."

Years of pain

Clare is one of dozens of dentists and nurses who, in their own time, travel to rural villages in Tanzania with the charity Bridge2Aid.

During each trip, the team will see hundreds of patients, many of whom will have been living with painful toothache for years.

The British teams have none of the reclining dentists chairs, x-ray machines and bright lights of the surgeries they work in at home.

Instead patients sit on rickety looking wooden chairs and extra light comes courtesy of head torches and hand-held flashlights.

Image caption Hundreds of patients queue up to see the British volunteer dentists

One shorter dentist even balances on a jerry can to get a better view into a patient's mouth.

The pressure cookers sit on top of kerosene burners, hissing away while they sterilise the forceps that are used for extractions.

But the dentists don't just take out decayed teeth.

One of the most important aspects of their work is training local health workers who can carry on treatment once the volunteers have returned home.

They hope that this will create a long-term, sustainable dental healthcare system.

Garforth: The nerve centre

Back in the UK, it is a grey and cloudy day when I find myself outside the nerve centre of the charity, in the unlikely setting of Garforth on the outskirts of Leeds.

Above a betting shop is the dental surgery of Ian Wilson, the founder and clinical director of Bridge2Aid.

Image caption Ian Wilson runs the charity from his surgery in Garforth near Leeds

Ian lived and worked in Tanzania for a decade and has seen first hand the impact that untreated toothache can have on the lives of people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

"If you're in pain, you can't function. So if you're a subsistence farmer in rural Tanzania, you can't work properly, you can't therefore generate that small, less than a- dollar-a-day income to survive as a family, to put your kids through school.

"So there's a social impact in terms of people being able to function and there's an economic impact. That can really have a significant effect on a village community."

And that impact is even more marked in Rwanda, where dental care is minimal.

Bridge2Aid plan to work with the Rwandan government, as well as two charities which already have a track record in the small central African state: Umubano, which is run by volunteers from the UK's Conservative Party, and Survivors Fund.

But Ian Wilson acknowledges the new project poses some huge challenges.

"If you look at Rwanda, it only has 11 dentists and the dentist per patient ratio is only 1 dentist per 800,000 people.

"So we've got the excitement of exploring the opportunity of taking the training model to see if we can bring more oral health care to those rural communities, especially when you're talking about just one dentist for every 800,000 people."

Meanwhile dentist Clare Roberts has finished her packing and is on her way back to Tanzania.

There will be plenty of patients waiting for her when she gets there.

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