In mid November 2017, having just returned from leading a Dentaid team in Nepal, I was approached by Dentaid to see if I would consider responding to a request for a dentist to go to the island of Sal in Cape Verde to provide dental care for the children who attend a charity run project, Castelos do Sal. The funding for this had been raised Elaine Harris from Dundee. She lived in Sal some years ago and has visited regularly since then and has been a volunteer helper at Castelos do Sal.
It provides daytime educational and social support for about 80 school age children many of whom are vulnerable and would otherwise be begging from tourists on the streets. When Michelle Obama visited she donated them a fridge! On her last visit to Sal, Elaine enquired about the access these children have to health care. Some of their medical needs were being met but she discovered that the children had virtually no access to dental or ophthalmic care so she decided to do something about it. She did not have much cycling experience, was not very fit and had little time to train for it but cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise the necessary funding. Elaine did not enjoy the experience but she completed it in 14 days.
My two weeks in Sal were very busy but it was a worthwhile trip. We only covered a very small part of the dental needs on the island. The local dentists charge about 50 euros for a check up which is a quarter of the average family monthly income when both parents are working so many children just have to put up with pain and abscesses. Many of the children had poor dental health with multiple decayed teeth and multiple abscesses not being uncommon. Adults seem to put up with the same and only have extractions done when symptoms get too much to endure. The children get lots of sweets given to them by the tourists that visit Sal, a not uncommon situation in developing countries with little provision of affordable dental care.
It was particularly satisfying to be able to do a lot of preventive work in the form of fluoride varnish applications, fissure sealants and training staff to do oral health education with the children. Dentaid very generously provided or accessed most of the equipment and materials required. Elaine got a 20 minute training course in basic dental nursing skills from me and we set up a rudimentary dental clinic in rooms provided by the local Social Services Department. Wendy, an optician from Edinburgh, joined us for the last week and was working in a room beside us.
In 9 and a half days of clinics we saw 50 adults and 180 children, extracted 67 teeth, did 89 fillings, 252 fissure sealants and 88 fluoride varnish applications. Elaine and our translator who is a member of staff at Caselos do Sal, are now running oral hygiene instruction sessions with the children.
Elaine managed to get some idea of estimated local dental treatment costs and calculated that we provided dental treatment that would have cost approximately £28,000 had the patients had to pay for it at local prices.
The two weeks passed very quickly. It was an amazing experience and a huge privilege to be able to provide some basic dental care for a wonderful bunch of children and a few of the adults working with them. I’ve never had so many hugs from patients the day after doing some not very pleasant things to them the previous day.