Dental caries, more widely known as tooth decay, is a public health problem affecting slightly more than a third of Kenya’s adult population.
Although tooth decay does not get its deserved attention, the repercussions of poor dental care are severe. They include poor nutrition, severe infections, degraded school performance and acute and chronic pain. Studies have linked poor oral healthcare to hypertension.
The key factors driving the epidemic are increasing consumption of sugary foods and drinks and inadequate use of fluoridated toothpaste, water, salt and milk to prevent it.
Government statistics from the 2015 Kenya Oral Health Survey show just 43 percent of people brushed their teeth once a day, nine per cent barely two to six times per week and four percent said they had never brushed their teeth.
A quarter of the population said they avoid smiling because of bad teeth. The problem is acute in young children. It causes school absenteeism, poor academic performance and related challenges.
Of great concern is that a most Kenyans have never been assessed for oral diseases. This is because the country has a dentist population of about 1,000 for a population of 42 million people, giving a dentist-to-population ratio of 1:42,000. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 1:7,000.
On average, Kenya trains 60 dentists, locally and abroad, 100 community oral health officers and 70 dental technologists annually — an acute number.
The fact that 80 percent of the available dentists are based in big urban centres, leaving large segments of the population in rural areas grossly underserved, shows the urgent need to improve this situation.
Given the reality in Kenya, there is a need to focus on prevention first and then cure.
And this must start with our children, with habits instilled early on in life. With concentrated focus on children to drive oral hygiene habits, great strides will be made.
The annual World Oral Health Day, which is being commemorated today, offers an opportunity to raise awareness about oral healthcare, highlight its burden and state of global capacity for prevention, management and care.
Educating children and teachers on it is a great way to re-emphasise its importance.
Among the several ways to improve the situation is conducting oral healthcare education and mass brushing clinics in schools across the country.
A core element of the campaign should be promoting brushing of teeth with fluoridated toothpaste in primary schools, education made possible by collaborating with teachers and parents.
To accelerate the transition towards universal access to affordable and quality toothpaste, stakeholders have to make good oral health a reality by making toothpaste affordable and accessible to most Kenyans.
Prevention is a more effective response than cure. This is why we need to identify and implement sustainable prevention strategies.
To really make a dent on this problem, the key industry players, the government and the dental care professionals, must come together and invest in sustained and viable strategies aimed at prevention and education.
By making basic oral hygiene practices common, the future will be bright and we would have done our bit in protecting Kenyan smiles.
Mr Marella is the beauty and personal care director at Unilever East Africa. . [email protected]