More partnerships needed to address oral health challenges

As Kenya joins the rest of the world in marking World Oral Health Day, it is encouraging to note that oral health is gaining increased prominence at the national government level and global stage as well. A pointer to this is President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2018 directive to the Ministry of Health to construct four eye and dental clinics in Eldoret, Nyeri, Nairobi and Mombasa.

While construction of these dental clinics is a critical first step in increasing access to oral healthcare services, more still needs to be done to give Kenyans the care they deserve.

Oral health indicators are not where they ought, with the prevalence of tooth decay, for example, being 34.3 per cent among adults and 46.3 per cent among children, according to the National Oral Health Survey (NOHS) released in 2015.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) tooth decay and cavities is the world’s most widespread chronic disease. Oral health in the Africa region suffers because basic dental services are lacking in existing health systems.

One of dentists’ pertinent concerns is that majority of Kenyans only visit them when the pain and discomfort arising from an oral health condition gets unbearable.

This poor oral health seeking behavior not only increases the complexity and cost of treatment, but also leads to a disproportionate focus on curative measures at the expense of preventive measures. This explains the huge gap in preventive care, with a lot of people, for example, not knowing how to use a tooth brush properly, despite brushing their teeth daily.

Other underlying factors contributing to the high oral health disease burden include insufficient government funding and inadequate baseline data to guide planning and implementation of oral health care services.

As part of the process of formulating an effective policy framework to address these issues, stakeholders need to urgently increase awareness about oral health among the general public. There are currently many misconceptions about oral health. For example, a huge section of the general public doesn’t view oral health as an integral part of general health and wellbeing, despite the fact that oral diseases can affect the ability to breathe, eat, swallow, speak or even smile.

While this year’s World Oral Health Day provides an opportunity for stakeholders to raise awareness about the importance of oral health, a sustained discussion about oral health, a more strategic and sustainable approach for engaging the public is needed.

As a stakeholder in oral health, one of the approaches that Mars Wrigley Confectionery has taken to increase awareness about oral health is to partner with the Kenya Dental Association (KDA) to provide free screening and treatment to school-going children.

Since 2018, when the program was inaugurated by Nairobi Senator Hon. Johnson Sakaja, we have reached more than 10,000 children in Nairobi, Murang’a and Nakuru counties. Phase 2 of the program, which kicked off a few weeks ago in Kajiado County, will reach 10,000 more school children across Kajiado, Machakos and Meru by end of 2019.

The key highlight of this corporate social investment initiative isn’t free screening and treatment, but the creation of 20,000 young oral health ambassadors who will grow up championing this important issue. This will have a more sustainable impact as far as increasing awareness about oral health is concerned.

Even as we strive to increase awareness about oral health as part of the wider push for the development of a national oral health policy, we need to be alive to the key challenges. One major challenge worth mentioning is that Kenya has a shortage of dentists.

Kenya has one dentist for every 42,000 patients, meaning that a dentist in Kenya treats six times more patients than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended ratio of one dentist for every 7000 patients. To overcome this, smart tactics such as working with community health workers are needed.

Through our partnership with KDA, we have worked closely with community health workers to screen and provide general treatment to school children. We have seen firsthand how instrumental they are in improving access to preventive and general care, especially in rural settings where the shortage of dentists is particularly acute.

(Ms Wanja is the Corporate Affairs Director – Developing Middle East and Africa at Mars Wrigley Confectionery Wanja.mwangi@effem.com)

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