Dental care footprint

Leaving a sustainable dental care footprint

A unique perspective on providing sustainable dental care in Guinea, West Africa

Since 1978 the international hospital ship charity Mercy Ships has ‘hope and healing’ to the world’s forgotten poor by offering specialised surgeries, medical and dental training. Using the transportable platform of the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy, the faith-based NGO spends 10 months at a time providing essential surgical and healthcare services to developing nations. The port city of Conakry was the hub of the NGO’s work for a fourth time, from August 2019 to June 2020.

“Mercy Ship runs on the goodwill of volunteers who give their time and skills to serve,” explains Dr Loo. “People from many nations, different cultures and languages all work together. It is a diverse community made up of incredible individuals. Many of these inspiring volunteers have dedicated years of their life away from home, foregoing a stable income and society’s mainstream definition of success.

“There were a number of factors that made practising dentistry vastly different than back home in New Zealand. The level of poverty, lack of education/awareness, lack of access to healthcare and medicine are a lot more significant in this part of the world. As a result we saw patients come in with enormous facial swellings that would have never been allowed to progress that far in New Zealand or another developed country.

“Due to the lack of access to antibiotics, dental abscess from an infected tooth could very well be a death sentence; a sad truth which is unheard of back home.

“Many of the patients with large untreated yet benign facial tumours had conditions which to developed large size, causing stigmatisation among their own community. They were inflicted with shame and some were outcast as a result.  These patients received free surgery on board the ship.

“Guinea is predominantly Muslim, with French widely spoken alongside a myriad of local languages. So during my days working at the dental clinic I would greet patients coming in or treatment in their local language of Fula, Onjarama (how are you?). I’ll never forget the delight on their faces when they heard the greeting in their own language.”

During the tour of duty in Guinea, parallel to patient care the Mercy Ships dental programme focused on empowering and enabling the local dental colleagues, a key way forward for the nation’s dental care system.

A CASE STUDY IN DENTAL SUSTAINABILITY – Dental Partner Unit Mentoring Programme

In addition to the Mercy Ships dental clinic which typically sees around 50 patients a day, a large dental project took place in partnership with Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry.

Mentoring was provided over 10 months for thirteen dentists, dental school staff and a total of seventy-one dental students (45 men and 26 women).  The project included extensive renovations of the entire first floor of the dental school and the donation of the necessary dental equipment for the school to fully integrate clinical training into their curriculum for students.  The renovations and equipping allow the school to have an 8-chair student dental clinic, a 3-chair faculty dental clinic, a dental simulation lab, administrative offices for the dental school, and a dental laboratory.  To ensure that the equipment receives proper maintenance and repairs, our Biomedical Facilitator conducted an eight-day training course specifically for the donated equipment.

The medical capacity building courses sought to improve the sterile processing practices used by technicians in Guinea’s hospitals and clinics.  Twenty-two participants attended the Sterile Processing Course in Conakry.  Following the course, fifteen were selected for additional training-of-trainers in order to be better equipped to train others.

A nutritional agriculture course was conducted with 32 participants (26 men and 6 women) from five non-government organizations from seven regions of Guinea, who received train-the-trainer instruction in nutritionally based, biologically and ecologically sustainable agriculture.  The course included both classroom and hands-on instruction; training in food transformation and measures to respond effectively to climate change impacts on agricultural practice and output. After the 22 weeks of training, the new trainers returned home to set up their own agriculture training project.

The impact made in Guinea during that 10-month period included the training of 1,099 local participants in healthcare courses, the provision of more than 41,000 free dental procedures,  and 2,442 free essential surgeries in orthopaedic, maxilla-facial, burns and plastics, obstetric fistula, paediatric general and ophthalmic specialities.

Dr Loo’s most meaningful Mercy Ships experiences included some non-dental interactions outside the clinic. “During the weekends I had the opportunity to help at an orphanage; Hope Village. We spent the day making crafts, singing, dancing and sharing a meal with the children. I had opportunity to learn from the lady in charge of the orphanage who shared her experiences going through the recent Ebola crisis. It was heartbreaking to hear her account of the tragedy, and the loss of so many people. Their joy was inspiring despite the little they had and all they had endured in recent years. I was deeply impacted by her strength in overwhelming circumstances and her transparency in sharing her journey.’

Published with thanks to NZ Dental Association news, Dec 2019 

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships