Children taking part in the Live Smart project, in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Credit: Dental Wellness Trust.
I am very lucky. My job entails working closely with members of The Circle. And this means that I am constantly learning about their areas of expertise and how they apply them to further gender equality.
They are also women who appear to exceed the limitations of time, which they manage to give so generously to empowering women and girls, in addition to the significant commitments of their professional and personal lives.
On 4 and 5 November I had the pleasure of experiencing a night and day in the world of one of our newest members, Dr Linda Greenwall. Linda is a dentist on the commendable mission to save kids’ teeth. She founded the Dental Wellness Trust in 2011, fulfilling a life goal of setting up a dental health charity for those in need. It was the start of an incredible journey that now reaches 5,000 children enrolled in school programmes and a further 2,000 who are enrolled in the LiveSmart Evening Health Programme, run by mothers in the community of Khayelitsha, South Africa. Khayelitsha is the same township where the Nonceba women shelter is based, which The Circle supports. And for those of you who joined us at the launch of this project on South African Women’s Day, on 8 August, you’ll remember Linda as our exceptional guest speaker of the night.
I am not a dentist. In fact, as I sat taking in all the information about children’s dental wellbeing, I was acutely aware that I hadn’t been to the dentist for over five years. I also had an Oprah Winfrey moment of gratitude for the education and the significant time and financial investment my parents made to ensure my dental health was the best that it could be.
So, what does a general member of the public with a professional interest in empowering women and girls take away from the wealth of knowledge presented by some of the best industry experts at the Saving Kids Teeth 2017 conference?
Way more that I can squeeze into this blog post! So, I am going to tell you about three fundamental things:
1. Tooth decay
Tooth decay is preventable. Wholly and completely preventable. Prevention is the only real solution to avoid pain, expensive procedures and a multitude of ripple effects that will impact on a child’s health, wellbeing and development from tooth to toe, body and mind.
Give a child a tooth brush and teach them how to use it and not only do you prevent dental issues, you also ensure children aren’t going to miss school because of unnecessary toothache, aren’t going to be bullied or experience low self-esteem because of the appearance of their teeth. It also won’t inevitably lead to painful, expensive procedures in the future.
There are many obstacles that stand in the way of girls accessing an education, which you can find out more about in our project supporting Educate Girls, India. So, it’s even more important to do what we can to avoid adding more obstacles to that list, especially if they are preventable!
2. Let’s talk about sugar
There is a clear, undeniable link between tooth decay, obesity and poverty in children. All of the speakers, talking from very different professional standpoints, clearly identified the same cause — sugar.
I’ll repeat that — despite their different focus points and experiences treating children with a multitude of different issues, they all identified sugar as the problem. Financial limitations, convenience of cheap products (generally high in sugar) and a lack of education about dental hygiene are the main reasons for the severe lack of dental wellbeing in children globally. In areas of poverty where addiction to sugar is high (because it is accessible, affordable, tasty, considered a treat or a reward, and easily shipped from western countries) tooth decay is much higher.
It felt very forward-thinking to hear the connections being made between dental decay and obesity in children. Encouraging approaches to integrated health are increasing our knowledge of how sugar affects the teeth and the gut, two crucial parts of the digestive system that aren’t traditionally considered together. And it seems obvious from the outside looking in that more integrated healthcare discussions need to be happening across specialisations to ensure a child’s wellbeing.
In my opinion, there is a third prong missing in this triangle, and that is mental wellbeing. Both Dr Sandra White and Prof Terence Stephenson spoke about a lack of confidence and the likelihood of bullying in children who are living with tooth decay and obesity. Sugar is the common enemy, regardless of the side of the health sector from which the story is being told.
Sugar is also the wolf in sheep’s clothing acting as the comforter and temporary solution to anxiety, stress and depression. The little comfort and happiness craved when a child has low confidence is being bullied. I think it would be interesting to bring in a mental health specialist to the table who specialises in understanding how living in poverty, experiencing pain and being bullied all contribute to how and why we make the choices we do, so that we can educate children and their parents to make good choices about their teeth and their food. And, simultaneously, raise the bar on what food is made available and why, for reasons pertaining to health instead of profit.
It is important to talk about issues that negatively impact children. Sugar is a common enemy and we need to be talking about how bad it is for children’s teeth, childhood obesity and the options available to those living below the poverty line globally.
3. Spit, don’t rinse
Finally, I learnt lots of science about fluoride and that water and fluoride don’t mix. The formula for healthy teeth is more fluoride and less sugar. So, remember — SPIT, DON’T RINSE!
Together Linda and I are exploring how our two worlds can meet to further empower women and girls, so if you have a connection to the dental sector, please contact us, sign up as a member if you haven’t already and watch this space in 2018!
Peta Barrett is a member of The Circle since 2016 and our Relationship Manager since 2017.