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Columbia Dental Team Tackles Oral Health in Africa
University’s Earth Institute includes
dental care as part of its strategy to end poverty

Columbia University faculty, staff and students from the College of Dental Medicine will travel this fall to sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania, Rwanda and Senegal, to develop oral health programs as an integral component of health care at Millennium Village sites.

Dr. Steven Syrop and a patient in Koraro, Ethiopia
Columbia professor Steven Syrop and
a patient last fall in Koraro, Ethiopia

The Millennium Villages project, led by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Promise, and the United Nations Development Programme, supports basic health interventions, builds and upgrades clinics, and expands the pool of community or village health workers. The project currently reaches more than 400,000 people at 12 sites in 10 sub-Saharan countries.

Beginning with three villages, the Columbia team will train local health care workers to provide basic essential dental care, including extractions and control of infections. Additionally, the team will introduce a comprehensive prevention program in the schools and the overall community by working with teachers to develop a curriculum that is appropriate and sustainable for each village. They also will develop a prevention program to educate mothers about caring for the oral health of their young children. 

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“If asked to name the most pressing health problem in Africa, many people might say AIDS or malaria," said Steven Syrop, an associate professor of dentistry with a longtime interest in humanitarian causes.  "It’s true, those diseases are still at a crisis level with more needing to be done to decrease their existence, however, it turns out that many in Africa have tooth problems that often go untreated and damage general health.”

The decision to develop oral health programs is an outgrowth of findings made through the Millennium Villages project according to Syrop and Ian Zlotolow, renowned surgeon and founder of the International Society of Oral and Maxillofacial Rehabilitation. 

Syrop and Zlotolow assembled a team in the fall of 2006 and traveled to the Ethiopian village of Koraro. Completing the initial oral health team was College of Dental Medicine student Jeff Laughlin, Peggy Timothe, from Harvard’s School of Dental Medicine, and Khim Hean Teoh, from the National Hospital in Singapore.

Columbia dental student Jeff Laughlin examines a child's teeth in Koraro, Eithiopia
Columbia dental student Jeff Laughlin examines a child's teeth in Koraro, Ethiopia

Koraro is one of 12 Millennium Villages, which are selected based on various criteria, including its location in a “hunger hotspot” and the potential to successfully spread antipoverty strategies to other communities.

 “There is currently no access to dental care whatsoever in the remote villages of the world,” said Syrop.  “There are only 48 dentists in the entire country of Ethiopia, and most are in the capital, Addis Ababa.  We’re bringing dental care to villages where there are no dentists.” 

After examining 5,100 villagers using a standardized World Health Organization dental assessment survey, the team discovered that most villagers commonly complained of oral pain.  They found a high incidence of hardened plaque and significant wearing-down of teeth.  Wear on the teeth is caused by sand in the food, a result of the arid environment and lack of water for rinsing fruits and vegetables.

Syrop says the plan to improve the villagers’ oral health is still in the development stages and involves teaching health extension workers to extract teeth, control tooth infections and institute a prevention program. This involves the use of chew sticks, simple twigs that are chewed to clean teeth after eating. The next step is to integrate a prevention and maintenance program in the schools. More children will benefit from these dental interventions because more are attending school for the free hot lunches, available because of surplus crop yields resulting from Millennium Village project agricultural initiatives.

– Story by Tanya Domi. Photographs courtesy of the College of Dental Medicine.

Published: July 24, 2007
Last modified: Jul 24, 2007