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SA kids take on the world with a smile

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“We cannot overestimate the importance of confidence in early childhood development, learning and eventually skills development and employment,” says John van Kan, Head of Healthcare at Standard Bank. As a bank committed to the health of the communities we serve, Standard Bank recognises the profound impact of poor oral health on a child's quality of life, which affects their ability to eat, speak and learn. “Oral health directly affects a child’s ability to function, concentrate, sleep, eat and speak and develop the necessary level of confidence for their age,” adds Van Kan.

Children living on the periphery of South Africa’s urban centres or isolated in rural areas can suffer from higher levels of severe toothache and other symptoms arising from a lack of oral hygiene knowledge and dental care. With these symptoms often left unattended, by the time children access oral healthcare professionals, treatment has become urgent, requiring general anaesthesia.

“It is heart-breaking and deeply disturbing to inform parents that their child will have to spend months on the waiting list before receiving treatment under general anaesthesia,” says Dr Daniella Steele, Outreach Manager at the SAAPD.

Government dental health facilities are struggling to keep up with the demand and treatment needs of the population, causing long waiting times for dental cleanings, extractions and restorations, particularly for children. “The time available for pediatric dentistry procedures requiring anesthetic in government health facilities is especially limited,” says Steele. The situation was exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions, which compromised the provision of dental services to children for almost a year. At the same time, “many parents who had medical aid were forced to terminate their cover during COVID-19 as they earned less or lost their jobs entirely,” says Van Kan.

Recognising the centrality of oral health to early childhood development, Standard Bank leapt at the opportunity to assist the SAAPD with the purchase and refurbishment of a truck that is currently operating as a mobile clinic. Once upgraded with an X-ray machine and a sensor, dental and doctor’s chairs, hand instruments and sterilising equipment, the truck will still be large enough to house two consulting rooms.

One room will operate as a fully equipped dental practice, and the other will be a consulting room for parent and child services. Having a double clinic provides an opportunity to educate parents on good oral hygiene practices during maternity check-ups or vaccination visits, improving general oral healthcare through prevention over time.

This pilot mobile paediatric dental initiative forms part of what the SAAPD hopes will one day “become a national fleet of mobile children’s dentistry units that, operated by the SAAPD, will significantly raise the standard and reach of children’s oral health across the country,” says Dr. Steele.

For now, however, once refurbished, Standard Bank and the SAAPD’s pilot mobile dental unit will operate at a fixed location in Gauteng for a few months before moving to a new location. “Retaining a mobile unit at a fixed location is the most reliable way to ensure the highest numbers of patients visit the clinic in each area,” says Rodney Makube, Chief Operating Officer at Rhiza Babuyile. “It also reduces maintenance and petrol costs,” he adds.

While Standard Bank’s R1 million donation to the SAADP will cover the purchase of an existing mobile medical truck, in Rhiza Babuyile’s experience operating costs of mobile medical units are in the region of R1.4 million per annum. To make the concept sustainable and build in the ability to take the concept to scale, the SAAPD’s mobile children’s dentistry concept targets parents in marginalised communities with sufficient means to contribute R250 per consultation. With mobile units able to treat between 15 and 20 children a day, or up to 15 000 each year, “the SAADP model anticipates that its mobile children’s dentistry units will become self-sufficient within two years,” says Dr. Steele.

By targeting a segment of the population unable to afford formal medical aid or private care, but with sufficient funds to make a small contribution, the SAADP mobile dental clinic concept is set to leverage a small segment of South African earners to deliver a disproportionally large impact on children’s oral hygiene and health in South Africa. “This is especially so when one considers the pressure that a concept of this nature, gone national, will take off the state’s national health system,” adds Van Kan.

“Oral health is critical to your overall wellbeing.  It is important for South Africans to visit their dental practitioner regularly to maintain their oral hygiene”, says Mr. Makhubele, CEO of the South African Dental Association.

Standard Bank is excited to get the ball rolling on this important initiative. “Even though it is just one truck for now, we know that every smile makes a world of difference,” concludes Van Kan.

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