Volunteering: Bridege2Aid Australia making a dental difference in Tanzania

26 November 2019

The idea of giving back had been with me for several years when I first heard about Bridge2Aid Australia. What immediately stood out to me was the impact that a volunteer could make through the organisation’s unique focus on training.

Traditional volunteerism tends to parachute people into an area for a week or two. The problem with this model is the void left behind for the other 50 weeks of the year. Sustainability is at the heart of Bridge2Aid Australia’s program.

The program's efforts in Tanzania
In August this year I travelled to Tanzania, East Africa to experience the program first hand and it overwhelmingly exceeded my expectations.

Tanzania has a population of 61 million and there are only 111 dentists. These dentists are in the cities, so for those in the rural areas there is simply no access to dental care. The people are poorly educated with little understanding of the impact of diet on their teeth. Drinks like Coca Cola are readily available and sold for a fraction of the cost of a bottle of water. The result is widespread untreated caries and associated complications.

Bridge2Aid Australia’s solution is to train community based rural health workers in emergency dental care. These workers, known as "clinical officers", already have basic medical skills and are effectively the GP doctors for their local community. They deliver babies, sew up wounds and dispense medications. By training these clinical officers in emergency dental care, the work can continue long after the volunteers leave and helps thousands more people than the volunteers could ever hope to help achieve.

On our August program I was one of a team of 12 volunteers drawn from all over Australia. The team consisted of seven dentists and five dental nurses. Travelling from a variety of locations we flew via Dubai and converged in the Tanzanian capital, Dar Es Salaam.

It was here that we were met by our local Tanzanian team. A large part of the exceptional volunteer experience was due to this team. They are Tanzanians and as such understand their country in a way a visitor cannot. They managed the details of our program with our safety and comfort being paramount. They provided transport, organised food and arranged our accommodation. The team also spread the word of our trip before we arrived so that on our first day there was already a queue of people waiting for treatment. Our program was based in the rural area of Lindi in the south eastern corner of Tanzania. In this region there is only one dentist, the District Dental Officer, Dr Rwanda with whom we worked closely.

The day-to-day experience
Our daily working environment was an open clinic with no electricity or running water. We set up six work stations with instruments arranged on a trestle table. In contrast to the usual rigorous infection control practices in Australia, our only option in the field for sterilising was to use pressure cookers over portable gas stoves. There was a plastic chair for the patient, a bottle for sharps disposal and a rubbish bin for everything else – spit, blood, teeth and gauze all went in the bin. Later the sharps and rubbish would be incinerated.

Cases we saw were emotionally challenging. Most of the patients we examined were suffering with dental pain which was usually measured in years rather than days or months. For some that pain had been a constant source of suffering for over ten years!

Primarily we were treating patients with advanced caries and infection. The pathology was often advanced well beyond what we would see in Australia. It was not unusual to see a patient with an external draining sinus that previously I had only seen in textbooks. The patient often came with a story of being asked to leave their village or not come to school because they looked unsightly and smelt terrible – people didn’t want to be near them.

A unique experience
Over the course of ten days we treated 750 patients, but more importantly we successfully trained six clinical officers. Each clinical officer can care for their community of around 10,000 people, so collectively there are 60,000 people who now have access to emergency dental care.

I was away from home only two weeks, but in that short time I was privileged to have been able to add to a legacy that empowers so many people less fortunate than myself.

Currently, Bridge2Aid Australia is seeking volunteers for their next program in Tanzania in August 2020. They are also looking for financial support through becoming a Practice Partner or making a donation.

Visit the Bridge2Aid website for more details. If you're looking to get involved or give back a little closer to home, the Australian Dental Health Foundation is looking for volunteers.

Jeremy Keating
Perth, Western Australia