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A Dental Charity That Works in the Developing World Has a New Clinic — in England

Dentaid, a charity which operates in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, says its services are now needed in the UK to provide basic dental care to those unable to access NHS dentists.
Dentaid volunteer dentist Ian Wilson attends to a patient at the Real Junk Tooth Project. Photo by Charles Parkinson.

A charity which provides dental care in developing countries is now operating in northern England, due to a critical lack of access to basic services for vulnerable people.

While Dentaid is most commonly known for its work promoting oral health and training local dentists in impoverished countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, organizers of the Real Junk Tooth Project in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury say its clinics are meeting a local need that exists in communities throughout England, Scotland and Wales.


Launched in early December, the Real Junk Tooth project sees Dentaid volunteer dentists offering free emergency dental pain relief to anybody who walks into the Dewsbury Dental Centre every Thursday evening.

People involved in the project are very keen to stress it is not aiming to replace or criticize the National Health Service (NHS), Britain's provider of (free) medical, and dental, services.

But an open letter in the Daily Telegraph signed by more than 400 practicing UK dentists earlier this month called the NHS dental system "unfit for purpose" and said the charity's set-up was proof of the pudding.

"The situation has worsened to such an extent that charity groups normally associated with providing dental care in Third World arenas now have to do so in England," it said. "When more than 90 per cent of all dental diseases can be prevented, it is also a national disgrace that children aged under 10 in England are still more likely to be treated in hospital for rotten teeth than for any other medical reason."

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While NHS dentists exist across the UK, it can be very difficult to register as a patient in certain areas because of demand outstripping resources. Research by reputable consumer magazine Which? last year found that a third of dentists listed as accepting new patients on an NHS database were in fact not accepting them, and those that were often had extremely long wait times.


Ian Wilson, a dentist based in Dewsbury who spent more than a decade working in East Africa and now volunteers once a month for the Real Junk Tooth Project, said the clinics should not be seen as an indictment of the NHS.

"What this is about is a recognition that for a variety of reasons, both in terms of funding and in terms of social demographic reasons, there are members of our society here in the UK that are in pain," he told VICE News.

"It's not right in this day in age for people to be in pain, for whatever reason. This is about the profession making a tangible response," he told VICE News.

One of those people is Chris, who said he was in his middle teenage years when he fell into the alcoholism he is still battling in his mid-30s. Among the many ill-effects his hard drinking brought, poor dental hygiene left his teeth in a bad way. Then last year one of his front teeth fell out.

"I was left in agony," he told VICE News, preferring not to have his real name published. "But I couldn't get into my local dentist because there were no spaces, and I couldn't travel outside the area because I was too busy holding down two jobs."

So Chris says he suffered through the day and drank the pain away at night.

"Then this person from Dentaid came along to my alcoholics support group and told us about this project giving free pain relief, so I came along," he said.

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According to Sue Baker, a retired dentist and Dentaid coordinator, one of the aims of the project is to help people back into the NHS system.

"There are always people who slip through the net and it's very difficult to target those people," she told VICE News.

In a statement released on January 18, Kathryn Hilliam, Head of Co-Commissioning for NHS England (West Yorkshire), said more than 11,500 new patients had been able to access NHS Dental Services in the West Yorkshire area between September 2014 and September 2015.

"However we do recognize that there are some areas in West Yorkshire where access to NHS dental care can be improved," the statement said.

But the problem extends far beyond West Yorkshire, with Dentaid's Overseas Projects and Volunteering Manager Jacqueline James saying that since the launch of the project the NGO has been "completely inundated" by dentists from elsewhere in the UK asking how they can set up similar schemes in their clinics.

However, James is keen to point out that things could be much worse without the NHS.

"We work in countries where there is no national health service and we see what that looks like," she told VICE News.

The Conservative government has blamed the current state of NHS dentistry on the policies of the Labour government that ruled Britain between 1997 and 2010, and pledged to transform it into a service "people can trust, and which delivers high standards of care to everyone who needs it". But it is also committed to slashing public services, ostensibly in order to cut Britain's deficit.


In July, Chancellor George Osborne announced the NHS would be receiving 8 billion pounds ($11.5 billion) more in annual funding by 2020 — in keeping with a pledge made prior to last year's general election — though health economist John Appleby has said that would equate to a less than 1 percent real increase per year.

Osborne also demanded 22 billion pounds ($31.5 billion) in efficiency savings from the NHS, which commentators have said cannot be made without significant cuts to frontline services.

Yet even before any new savings NHS dentistry may have to make, people complain the service lags far behind that of normal NHS medical care.

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"If you broke your arm and you had to sort that out in the same way you have to sort out a painful tooth, there would be a public outcry. You can just walk straight into a hospital and get it sorted, but dental care no," said Paul Burr, one of the founders of the Real Junk Tooth Project.

Burr said the idea for the project emerged from the Real Junk Food Project, a scheme he runs that seeks to tackle both food poverty and food waste in Dewsbury by collecting food destined to be discarded by shops and restaurants and serving it up on Friday evening to anyone in need of a solid meal.

"The vast majority of people that come in on a Friday have got problems with their teeth," he said, adding that some hungry people are in such severe pain they cannot eat properly.


According to Baker, targeting schemes like the Real Junk Food Project, as well as mental health and addiction support groups, has given Dentaid access to people the NHS often struggles to reach.

But while everyone VICE News spoke to was keen to voice their support for the NHS, few were willing to speak about how the government's approach to health spending has affected the ability of the NHS to provide and improve services.

"It's not our role to look at the limitations of the NHS, our role is to try to find a way of reaching those people who are not accessing the service," said Baker. "We are not regulators and we are not commissioners, we are just dentists who care."

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn

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