Head of the DDU John Makin shares his experiences of travelling to Tanzania with volunteers for the dental charity Bridge2Aid.

Many DDU members will already support a dental charity in one way or another, giving of their time and sharing their expertise to raise funds or directly provide care for some of the millions of people around the world who have no or limited access to dental care. Without exception, the colleagues with whom I have spoken about their involvement and work with dental charities have found it to be a stimulating and rewarding experience.

Bridge2Aid (B2A) is one such charity, delivering training for local healthcare workers in rural Tanzania and providing them with the essential skills needed to offer safe emergency dental treatment and alleviate the chronic pain and infection from which so many of the population suffer. Since 2004, B2A's work has given access to emergency care for over five million people.

I was delighted to accept an offer to join B2A's Council of Reference and in that capacity went out to Tanzania in 2017 to see the programme first hand.

Hope Dental Centre is in the city of Mwanza, Tanzania. Equipped by the UK dental equipment industry, it has been run by B2A to help fund charitable training activities, such as the rural training of medical officers, as well as providing dental care in a city where previously there was none. The clinic is now a separate charitable entity, with its own education and outreach programme.

The core B2A activity is the training programme to enable local healthcare workers to assist the local population. The three stage model is designed to be sustainable and self-perpetuating.

  • Stage 1: experienced dental professionals volunteer to act as trainers for the local rural healthcare workers.
  • Stage 2: the local District Dental Officers are taught by UK volunteers to become trainers themselves, sharing the expertise with an even wider group locally.
  • Stage 3: Tanzanian trainers, supported by B2A's expertise and equipment procurement, train Tanzanian healthcare workers. This model gives the project the potential to grow rapidly, allowing B2A to begin the training process in other countries that are also in desperate need of urgent care facilities.

My visit involved a light aircraft flight from the city of Mwanza across Lake Victoria (well, part of it - given that it's three times the size of Wales!) to Bukoba. From there we drove to one of the local villages to see first hand the work of the B2A volunteers, who were in Tanzania for two weeks delivering the training programme.

When we arrived at the village the training session was already well underway, with an orderly queue of patients collecting their numbered stickers then waiting their turn in the open air waiting room.

Even this waiting time was put to good use by the local medical officer who used audience participation to good effect as he provided oral hygiene and dietary advice.

Tanzanian dentist talking to patients

Photo credit: John Makin

The efficient teamwork of the B2A volunteers ensured that a steady flow of patients were seen, assessed and treated, with the session delivering hands-on training for the local healthcare workers and much needed pain relief for the stoical but grateful patients.

By the time the hardworking B2A team of volunteers paused for a well-earned lunch break, the chart on the wall in the waiting area showed that almost a hundred patients had been seen and treated and that twenty or so more were to be treated in the afternoon session.

However before long a whole new group, some of whom had walked for more than four hours to reach the village, had arrived and were waiting quietly and patiently in the hope of treatment. All were seen and cared for.

The dedication and commitment of the colleagues I saw and met during my brief visit was self-evident. Notwithstanding the challenging circumstances, they clearly found the experience rewarding - indeed, many had returned multiple times, and enjoyed the company and camaraderie of their fellow volunteers.

Their work had an immediate positive impact on those who were treated, but crucially the training legacy ensures that the local healthcare workers will be able to assist many more of their compatriots in the future.

The work of the B2A volunteers and the many other dental professional colleagues working with other charities at home and around the world, who so freely give their time to those in need, exemplifies that dentistry is, above all else, a caring profession.

Volunteering with projects such as Bridge2Aid can add a whole new dimension to your dental career, as well as allowing you to use your professional skills to help those in need around the world. To find out more about Bridge2Aid and its international volunteer projects, visit the organisation's website.

You may need to check if you are indemnified to volunteer abroad, so please contact us if you have any questions.

This page was correct at publication on 02/05/2018. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.