By Faith Atieno

Untreated dental caries of permanent teeth is one of the most prevalent diseases globally and regionally. Despite the significant achievements in the state of oral health globally, Africa is still burdened with the persistence of oral diseases.

According to World Health Organization [WHO], oral health is a state of being free from chronic mouth and facial pain, oral and throat cancer, periodontal [gums] disease, tooth decay, tooth loss and other diseases and disorders that limit an individual’s capacity in biting, chewing, smiling, speaking and psychosocial well-being.

WHO states that dental disease remains untreated in Africa due to the lack of unequal distributions of professionals and appropriate facilities in many African countries-no dedicated oral health budget incurs significant expenses on the people in order to access dental services.

Dr. Adekemi Adeniyan, a dentist, oral health advocate, and executive director of the Dentalcare Foundation states that in as much as people are aware of the oral health-related problems, it is unfortunate that the situation is still not given that much of a priority as it should be.

Adeniyan during world Oral Health Day in 2020

Adeniyan, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria narrated that growing up, oral health services were not easily accessible therefore, she and other children were not privileged to access the service which negatively impacted them in different ways.

This led her to study dentistry so that she could come back to the community and help children. “I would imagine if in 10 years I would be where I was, and I didn’t want that,” she said.

Adeniyan acknowledges that working in a rural community wasn’t easy but it is the smile from the children that kept her going.

Her background and the acknowledgement given to her in the rural community where she worked are the reason why Adeniyan established the Dentalcare Foundation in 2018 which is dedicated to provide the under-served in rural areas with free oral healthcare and oral education.

Adeniyan during the oral health education and book read in Howokids School Nigeria

The foundation aims to improve the Nigerian oral healthcare system and explore the intersection of community and culture in relation to oral health. Basically, the foundation ensures that everyone has equal access to oral healthcare irrespective of their age, status, or gender.

While undertaking the tasks, she wrote a book, “The Girl Who Found Her Smile” which promotes oral health in children and gets them to act on their mouth health- written in English and translated in French, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.

She went ahead and produced an oral health animation, “Anita Says” based on the character from the book exploring different challenges children go through in having better dental hygiene.

Adeniyan believes children can be oral health champions if educated correctly hence, the use of art and media makes it sustainable. “I was helping my brother brush his teeth when he started crying due to dental pain and he started refusing to brush his teeth, but when I started singing to him the dental songs he would then go back to brushing. This made me realize songs make children want to brush their teeth, the reason behind the animation,” said the executive director.

Adeniyan with beneficiaries from the local community

Despite being important for access to oral health to penetrate in schools, it is regrettably low especially in rural areas as the few dentists available are mostly located in the urban areas.

“Every rural area has a school, this makes it easier for those children who have no opportunity to visit the dental clinic to easily access the dental health knowledge,” she says, adding that the idea of claiming that it will be a tough task for teachers to handle more work is unrealistic because it is a matter of including oral health education in what’s already being done such as music festivals.

With oral health increasingly being identified as a major public health issue among children especially with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been some major challenges facing the sector as well as the Foundation.

According to Adeniyan, there is a resistance to change not only in Nigeria but across African countries. Most people are still holding onto the poor nutritional habits such as eating too much candy while children still get to bite on their pencils weakening their teeth.

Oral health is also being sidelined, she said noting that “people are still prioritizing HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, Hepatitis, and other illnesses claiming that dental health will not kill the economy while the reality is it will die because it’s the young generation that’s most affected.”

Adeniyan added that due to the ‘rabbit teeth’ insults from fellow students, children tend to shy off from going to school as their self-esteem is interfered with resulting in their poor performance at school. A nation with such kind of children means a downfall for the next generation, hence a threat to the economy- it’s a silent killer.

Moreover, with various ethnic groups in Africa, language barrier remains to be a challenge for the Dentalcare Foundation and other programs, especially in the rural areas. This according to the executive director makes it impossible to communicate unless the content is translated to the relevant language.

Besides the World Oral Health Day that’s celebrated once every year, African governments are not doing enough to ensure oral health is given the priority and attention it deserves to ensure a healthier Africa. “African countries are lagging behind on this matter,” she remarks.

Adeniyan hopes that the book and animation will get to go viral by reaching every community and educating every child because as the champions they will get to pass the knowledge to their parents, “a child will tell his/her mother not to excessively buy them candies or that he/she is practicing brushing their teeth at least twice a day,” she said.

The Foundation has partnered with more the Atlantic fellowship-Atlantic, various Ministries of Education from different countries and the FDI World Dental Federation among others.

She concluded by saying to achieve a healthier African, we need to focus on and reinforce the message of how oral health affects the overall health.