Monday, January 31, 2011

Give Kids A Smile!

Kids in Africa get a Healthy Smile

Mercy Ships, a global charity, is putting an international twist on bringing smiles to kids. Give Kids a Smile Day, observed the first Friday in February by the American Dental Association, is a day when dentists in the United States offer free oral care to children of low-income families. This year, an estimated 39,000 kids in the United States will receive free services.

Mercy Ships operates the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, serving the poor in West Africa. The programs offered when Mercy Ships serves a nation range from life changing surgeries to physician training. Mercy Ships also operates a dental clinic that provides dental work for individuals free of charge. In essence, the dental team celebrates “Bring Kids a Smile Day” everyday. In 2010, the Mercy Ships dental team performed approximately 15,000 procedures on 8,000 patients. Men, women and children come each day to the clinic. Not only do the patients receive dental treatment, but they also receive instruction about dental hygiene while they wait for their turn to see a professional dentist.

In addition to treating children in the dental clinic, Mercy Ships dental hygienists, like Donna Bartholomew of Elk Grove, California, take time to visit schools and teach kids how to take care of their teeth. During a recent field service in Togo, West Africa, Donna spoke to a classroom full of kids at an elementary school. Many of them had never brushed their teeth – or ever owned a toothbrush.

Ms. Bartholomew warned the children, “Bad health will lead to cavities – holes in your teeth that will pain you.” She then showed them how to brush correctly, asking one of the students to demonstrate in front of the class. At the end of the presentation every child received a bright red toothbrush.

Mercy Ships Chief Dental Officer Dag Tvedt of Norway believes that children in developing countries are more tolerant to pain in a dentist’s chair compared to children in the developed world. He has provided dental treatment for thousands of children in West Africa. Most people would not think that kids would get a smile while being in a dentist’s chair.

Sometimes, however, the treatment they receive alleviates their pain. Dr. Tvedt is a vital part of the Mercy Ships dental team, and he encourages prevention through dental hygiene instruction in the region served by Mercy Ships.

Due to the lack of trained dentists in West African countries, people who live in this region typically do not have any knowledge of dental hygiene. Dental education at a young age will help decrease dental problems in the future. The Mercy Ships dental team performs extractions of teeth everyday. The team hopes that, through prevention, the amount of extractions will decrease. Correct hygiene can prevent extractions and painful procedures down the road.

The spirit of Give Kids a Smile Day is to remember those children who cannot afford yearly dental checkups. Mercy Ships believes kids deserve a smile everyday. The dental care provided by Mercy Ships meets a critical need in the developing countries of West Africa – and gives many children a bright and beautiful smile!

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