Spit and polish: Refugee children’s first visit from the dentist

Ioannina and Thessaloniki
Narration

Youngsters at refugee camps in Northern Greece have had their first ever dental appointments this month, thanks to MdM’s Mobile Dentistry Unit funded by the European Commission. Led by dentist Sofia Kouva, the three-person team has been at refugee camps in Ioannina and Thessaloniki, teaching youngsters how to care for their teeth, parents how to help, and of course giving their teeth a polish and shine as well.

Though Syria had a good dentistry service before its civil war broke out, many children who have escaped since 2011 have never had the chance to have appointments to see an oral health specialist, so the team’s visits were the first chance for them to learn more about dental hygiene and how to maintain it – as well as an opportunity for Sofia and her team to get a better idea of the challenges and problems at the camps.

To make the appointments convenient for most children – and to ensure as many as possible aged three and above were seen – the team coincided their visits with a programme of vaccinations being run at the refugee camps at Ioannina and Thessaloniki.

Speaking at Redestos camp, just outside Thessaloniki, Sofia explained: ‘Often, parents at the camps do not bring their children to the dentist unless they are in severe or constant pain. So this is a perfect chance to find all the children together in one place at the same time.

‘We are running a fluoridisation treatment for the children, and dental hygiene advice, including showing children how to brush properly and advising adults what to watch for, and how to encourage children to maintain good dental hygiene and practices.’

And Sofia and her team, who are also registering children for follow-up appointments for their next visit, have found that there is an – often urgent – need for dental hygiene advice and treatment at the camps.  

She said: ‘The diet here is very bad for people’s teeth. For example, they have a chocolate croissant for breakfast, and this combines with the fact that children are not brushing their teeth properly. That’s one of the reasons we’re teaching oral hygiene.

‘Some of the Syrian adults have very good teeth, but there seems to be a difference between them and the Afghans. It’s often said that in Afghanistan, there has been war for 15 years, but in fact there has been conflict there for around 40 years.

‘Under those circumstances – when you consider all the ways war destabilises people’s lives – the dentist is one of the first things to be dropped. So in some camps I am seeing 35 year-olds who have never visited the dentist.

‘For the Syrian children, the same thing is happening. There has been war for five years and taking your child to a dentist is not a priority in war. So the problems we are seeing with Syrian and other youngsters are really caused by war and instability.

‘When you face that kind of instability, you save money – one way is by not taking yourself or your children to the dentist. Also, when people are on the move, their first priority is to keep their children safe, not to check their children’s teeth.

‘But now, they are in the middle of the settlement process. People need to be motivated to get new health habits, because they will hopefully have new places to live soon, and we can help them to start getting their lives back to normal, and safeguarding their teeth is part of that. Teeth are important, and war should not cause generations to lose them.’

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