Articles, Dentistry

Making a difference in Uganda

In February this year, Pat Groves, a dentist from Nottingham, travelled to Uganda to deliver dental treatment. She worked out of Masaka, using contacts she had made during her first visit the previous October. It’s estimated there are around 200 dentists in Uganda, giving a ratio of one dentist to 175,000 people, with more than 70% of children under five and 90% of adults suffering from tooth decay.

Pat gives her account of her trip to Uganda…

‘When I arrived in Masaka, my contact had set me up on a rotation system, working for various charities based in the area. Every morning, I’d wait to be picked up outside Kitovu Hospital, armed with a small suitcase of kit. Our driver would take us to local schools, where I would set up my practice. 

‘I’d take my dentist’s chair, which was provided by Dentaid, spread out my stuff and get started. There was never any running water or electricity, so I couldn’t perform fillings. One day, I was even joined by chickens in the building I was using as a makeshift surgery. When my first patient opened her mouth and my translator asked her which tooth was hurting, it could have been any one of them. In the end, I resorted to pointing.’

Worth the hard work

‘I just kept going because they kept coming. I would numb four children, extract from four and check four. I extracted more than 250 teeth in the time I was there – that’s more than in my whole career in the UK! The children were very accepting, as word got around that I didn’t hurt. There was one little girl, Rose, who was only three – her mother wasn’t with her but she still let me take her tooth out. I’d work all day and stop for about an hour before it got dark because the roads are treacherous at night.

‘The first time I ran out of anaesthetic, I went to the pharmacist who told me it’s common to mix your own, despite it being easy to get the quantities of ingredients wrong. People still visit the local witchdoctor too – if a child has two rows of teeth, because their mouth is overcrowded or their baby teeth haven’t come out – they are called ‘devil’s teeth’. They would be taken to the witchdoctor for an exorcism and the tooth would be removed without sterile instruments. If I came across any ‘devil’s teeth’, I extracted them myself.

‘The age range I saw was from tiny children to teens. I also visited a refugee camp on the border with Tanzania. Around 4,500 children live in makeshift shelters in the middle of nowhere and hadn’t visited a dentist before. The little store had sweets and soft drinks – but no toothbrushes.’ 

A little help 

‘I was given dental consumables from various companies to distribute while I was over there. I’m self-funding, so donations are essential. Some of the children are sponsored and receive a toothbrush and toothpaste every six months. The ones without sponsors were using a twig, so you can imagine how well the toothbrushes I was given by Curaprox went down – when they got their first-ever brushes, they were thrilled. 

‘At times I felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface. But there were moments that made it all worthwhile. I’d see children in pain, who had been missing school – I’d take their teeth out in the morning and by the afternoon they were playing for the first time in months because the pain was gone. 

'I plan to go back to Uganda in October to continue with my work.’

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