By Adekemi Adeniyan
Nigerian children are most likely to have chronic dental diseases. Yet the reality is they are unlikely to ever see a dentist or the inside of an oral health facility.
But every weekday, outside of school holidays or days when they are sick, they are inside the classroom. And, research shows that children who have poor oral health are three times more likely to be absent from school due to dental pain.
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Teachers can help reduce school absenteeism due to dental pain by being part of a first-line defense in preventing oral health diseases.
Over 530 million children globally have dental caries of the primary teeth – this is more than the entire population of the United States, which has the third-largest population in the world.
One of the most common childhood chronic diseases in Nigeria is dental caries. This is a disease that can affect every aspect of a child’s physical, emotional, social life and can also lead to withdrawal, anxiety and absence from school. This calls for action.
The best way to tackle oral health diseases is to create awareness on how to prevent it. In communities and underserved populations where people have no access to dental professionals, prevention is still the cheapest solution while we advocate for better and more equitable health systems. Children who are less likely to have access to dental care services due to economic limitations can always benefit from education and prevention programmes.
As a rural dentist, one of my goals is to make oral health education easily accessible to every child. To do this, my organization goes to schools in rural communities to provide oral health education with the aim of reducing oral health diseases. However, we are often limited to different schools at a time, especially when we have to work with a few oral health professionals. This limits our reach and the number of children we can educate per trip.
In 2018, Punch Nigeria reported that the country has over two million qualified teachers — that is 200 times more than the total number of dentists, therapists, dental nurses and dental hygienists in the country.
It is obvious that the country’s dental problems cannot be solved by dental professionals alone, we need a community of first-line defenders — and teachers belong to that group.
First, good oral hygiene habits are acquired in the formative years of a person’s life. In childhood children spend more time with their teachers than they do with a dentist. Teachers can therefore play key roles in championing oral health in children and can significantly help implement school-based oral health activities.
Second, even though the dentist may know more about how to take care of the mouth than a teacher, children can learn more in a classroom than a dental clinic. Children are often more comfortable with their teachers than a dentist they see twice a year, in the best case. This is because health facilities are generally scarier for children than familiar classroom environments. Therefore a teacher would be very instrumental in influencing a child’s oral health behaviour.
Third, more rural communities in Nigeria have access to education than to oral health services, which means families from low socioeconomic backgrounds may face more challenges accessing a dentist close to home than accessing a school.
Finally, prevention pays off. Making use of teachers even pays better. Nigerian policymakers will spend less money instituting oral health education policies in schools and training teachers to be dental educators than addressing huge out-of-pocket costs of dental services. The one time cost of training 10 teachers could range between $500 to $1000 while the lifetime cost of treating one bad teeth can be from $1000 to $3000. It’s a win-win affair in terms of the country’s finances.
Teachers already have a lot on their plate, but are more than willing to take on the responsibilities of teaching healthy children if we pay them what they are worth. Moreover, oral health education can be incorporated into already existing school subjects without becoming an additional burden. Oral health habits could easily be taught through an English comprehension class, a music class or during physical education.
In order for us to achieve this, policy makers should develop a policy that allows oral health education to be part of primary school curriculum. This policy process should involve school health teams, teachers, families and dental practitioners. Dentists need to constantly provide quick and adequate oral health information to support school teachers. Information materials such as audio visual material, handbills, posters, exhibitions can be used to meet the wide range of health information for them. State governments should also work on allocating resources to ensure proper and adequate training for teachers along with incentives to further motivate them.
We can support teachers by developing a training program with lesson plans guided by the dental health professionals. And then we can ensure that children are not only taught valuable lessons but supported in staying in school.
We need to keep millions of children around the world in schools by bringing oral health education closer to them, teachers can help make this happen.
Dr Adekemi Adeniyan is the Executive Director, DentalCare Foundation