The Dentist Magazine.

Students help teach good oral health in South Africa

Published: 11/10/2017

Final year King’s College London dental students Karolyn John and Jack McSweeny spent three weeks of their summer volunteering in the villages surrounding Cape Town in South Africa as part of the dental elective programme offered by King’s College London Dental Institute.

The two students helped deliver oral hygiene instructions on behalf of the Dental Wellness Trust, a charity that aims to promote general dental wellness to less fortunate communities in both the UK and abroad. They visited a number of small townships outside Cape Town with the goal of teaching children the importance of brushing their teeth and washing their hands.

“The people living in the townships suffer extreme hardship and poverty at a level which we in the UK can hardly comprehend,” explains Karolyn. “They use water and soap sparingly as it is seen as a luxury”.

The local children attend an after school programme which is run by trained volunteers known as “Mamas”. Unfortunately, there are not enough volunteers to reach all the children, but Karolyn and Jack wanted to help spread messages to more of the children in need.

Initially, only 4 classes of approximately 48 students were being targeted the area Karolyn visited, but by the end of her trip they managed to get 12 classes involved by spreading the word and recruiting more volunteers.

“It was extremely challenging logistically to ensure there were enough toothbrushes for everyone,” Karolyn adds. “With about 500 children brushing at the same time, monitoring their technique was initially quite a task!

“However, their abundant enthusiasm and happy disposition made the entire operation a thoroughly pleasant experience.

As well as taking part in the Dental Wellness Trust programme, Jack visited an outreach centre in Mitchells Pain, a township in Cape Town. The centre is run as a community clinic and Jack witnessed how the state healthcare system struggled to deliver health care to the local community.

“I found this community clinic and their protocols considerably different to those in the UK,” explains Jack. 

For example, a single tooth extraction, a procedure that would normally take around 45 minutes in an undergraduate clinic in the UK, took 30 seconds.

Both Jack and Karolyn found their trip to South Africa a life changing experience. Jack sums up the experience: “During my elective I saw a sign that read ‘Ubunta: Xhosa for human kindness’ and it hit me how often I saw human kindness on a daily basis. Reflecting on my three weeks in South Africa, the kindness of the Mamas and everyone I met is largely what made this elective such a great experience.”