Defence Force Brings Dental Relief

8 May 2018

In the midst of a military exercise in Vanuatu, the Royal New Zealand Dental Corps are delivering relief to villagers who have never been to a dentist before.

A New Zealand Defence Force contingent is in Vanuatu to take part in a joint military exercise based on Epi Island. The fictitious scenario involves a breakdown of law and order on the island, prompting the Vanuatu Government to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for its citizens. A New Zealand joint task force, embarked on HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington, goes to the island to help restore order.

During the exercise an NZDF medical team is undertaking health promotion work around the island, while a dental team of 10 is based at Vaemali Medical Centre, above Lamen Bay.

The three-dentist team will be on the island for five days and during the first three days at the centre has dealt with 179 patients, performing 280 dental procedures.

One of the dentists, Major Phil Worthington, said there was no power in the clinic, so the dentists worked with head torches.

The work had also been non-stop, with about 40 people waiting outside the clinic, he said.

"We have to tag our breaks, grab a quick bite, and stop for half an hour for lunch - it's the only way we can get through the numbers.

“We can't deal with everything, so we're looking at the things that cause people pain. The most teeth extracted from one person is seven.”

The team is also delivering oral hygiene messages, with a hygienist and dental assistants working with children and parents outside the clinic, using dye to show plaque on teeth, teaching brushing techniques and handing out brushes and toothpaste.

The team got a lot of satisfaction from relieving pain and infection, Major Worthington said.

“They are fighting chronic pain every day, with no hope of relief. This is a real hearts and mind exercise for us.

“When you're fighting pain and infections in your mouth every day, you can't fight other things. This is a relief for them."

Dental hygienist Warrant Officer Denise Mariu, who had been visiting outlying villages with another team member to ease the load on the dentists and provide education, said the big issues were sugar and decay.

"I've been on a lot of these deployments, and I see children with cheap drinks and sweets, sucking on them all day," she said.

This page was last reviewed on 6 February 2019.