Researching Dental Health in Namibia

February 21, 2013

Amanda Nagy

Richard McGuire, left, taught lessons in dental health to preschool-aged children in Namibia. Teacher Loine Kamenye, right, translated.

At Oberlin, the period between fall and spring semester known as winter term is an opportunity for growth, reflection, and new experiences. Throughout the month, formal classes are suspended, and students have the option of completing a project of their choicefor half or full credit. Regardless of the project, the central objective of winter term is to continue the process of personal and academic discovery outside the confines
of a classroom.

Third-year student Richard McGuire came to Oberlin with an enviable problem: an abundance of options. A violinist, he plays in the College of Arts and Sciences Orchestra. His pursuit of a premed track connected him with an alumni mentor in public health, which led to an interest in providing dental care for underserved communities. And as a Posse scholar, McGuire has discovered opportunities to volunteer and study abroad.

In January, McGuire spent winter term in northern Namibia, where he worked with primary school children and conducted fieldwork on the state of dental health in the region. His goal is to develop a nonprofit initiative that will present creative educational media on the importance of maintaining oral health in parts of the world where dental care and resources are lacking or nonexistent.

Oral health is one of the most neglected areas of global health. McGuire sites statistics from the Oral Health Atlas, which finds there is roughly one dentist per population of 50,000 in Namibia. In comparison, the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom have one dentist per population of 1,000. In some sub-Saharan African countries, the ratio is only one dentist per 900,000 people. Because of the lack of aid, knowledge, and access to care, a high percentage of people have undiagnosed oral or dental complications. The pain and sepsis from tooth decay, for example, affect a child’s ability to eat and sleep, leading to malnutrition and school absenteeism. When left untreated, severe dental problems can be fatal.

A Chicago native, McGuire is majoring in biology and is currently cochair of Abusa, Oberlin’s Black Student Union. He spent the summer of 2012 in Ondangwa, Namibia, through WorldTeach, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that places volunteers in teaching positions in developing countries. He taught computer literacy in grades eight through 10. “I fell in love with Namibia and southern Africa, and I knew I wanted to come back,” he says. “While living and volunteering there, I observed the lack of knowledge about dental hygiene in the greater community, specifically among youths. When I returned to Oberlin, I started thinking seriously about dental health. I did the research and realized there is a need for education, especially in poor, remote areas where people don’t have access to a dentist.”

Although most of the population is concentrated in northern Namibia, villages are distant from the cities. In most villages, the nearest dentist is hours away. For his winter-term project, McGuire conducted interviews with adults 18 years and older to assess their knowledge of oral hygiene and the frequency in which they visited a dentist. He wanted to see if there is a correlation between education and financial background and dental health. Many of the subjects he interviewed were schoolteachers with health insurance. He found that employment and health benefits do not increase a person’s ability to see a dentist; education is the most significant factor, followed by income.

“The surprising thing I realized was that even if they don’t go to the dentist, many of the people I interviewed have pretty good knowledge of dental care. They have good teeth and are physically healthy.”

A second component of his project involved teaching and outreach with preschool-age children in an orphanage. He taught lessons in brushing and cleaning and the importance of teeth for eating, smiling, singing, and talking. McGuire also gave out 500 small tubes of toothpaste and 100 toothbrushes, courtesy of Oberlin dentists Jacko & Jacko, DDS, and Dale Petrill, DDS.

In developing his research, McGuire consulted with his friend and mentor Anthony Osei ’10, who is a candidate for a master’s degree in public health at Case Western Reserve University. Osei has been his mentor for two years, and both share aspirations to be doctors.

 “I really want to take this to the next level and make it a nonprofit initiative,” McGuire says. I want to see if I can make comparisons here in the United States with my research, and hopefully go to other countries.”


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