Improving Oral Health in Africa
By Catherine Duncan
As a periodontist with an interest in international education and global research, Peter Loomer, B.Sc., D.D.S., Ph.D., MRCD(C), FACD, was destined to find himself in Sub-Saharan Africa with its high prevalence of periodontal disease and dental caries.
Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge shortage of health care professionals, but the need is especially severe in oral health care, explained Dr. Loomer, dean of the School of Dentistry. “These nations do not have the financial resources needed to treat periodontal disease or caries so we learned we must dedicate our work to prevention.
“We work to improve the educational training of all health care workers, not just dentists, and others, such as teachers, to stress the importance of oral health and to promote healthy behaviors because there will never be enough health care workers or financial resources to adequately treat these diseases. Prevention is the most effective approach,” he said.
His research is focused on interprofessional education, student international education, global research experience, faculty development and curriculum reform in developing nations with an emphasis on Tanzania, Kenya and India. This work has been supported through funding from the National Institutes of Health, the NIH Fogarty International Center and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dr. Loomer said one of the first curriculum projects he worked on was at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, a health sciences university in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and similar in scope to UT Health San Antonio. Funded by the Gates Foundation, one of the project’s goals was to increase the skill set and workforce of health care providers for oral health care in Tanzania.
When he was recruited in 2013 to New York University and served as the director of Global Health for Oral Health Sciences, Dr. Loomer began a collaborative effort with NYU colleague Yvonne Buischi, D.D.S., Ph.D., in Kenya at the Daraja Academy, a boarding school for girls of poverty. Drs. Loomer and Buischi travel there several times annually to continue development and expand their oral health education program that began in 2014.
“We are striving to improve their oral and general health. While we started the work at an all girls’ school, we now are working toward expansion of the program throughout the country and beyond,” he said. “It is a low-cost intervention. My hope is that the program will serve as a model that can be replicated anywhere to improve oral health globally.”
East Africa has a lot of underserved areas, he said. “However, we can also use what we are doing there to improve oral health in underserved areas in Texas. I have found that you learn a great deal when working in other countries, lessons that can be applied at home to educate students and to improve patient outcomes.”
Dr. Loomer said his time in Kenya “also helps you to focus beyond oral health. First, you certainly learn to appreciate what you have here. Next, you develop a deep understanding of the many factors that influence health, including living conditions, financial resources, access to food, clean water and health care. You must figure out what works to help improve the health of the population.”
Drs. Loomer and Buischi decided to write a book for the young female students in Kenya about what to do to improve one’s oral health so that when they are not there, girls can refer back to it. The students, who are from tribes around Kenya, are then able to go back home to their villages and teach their siblings using the book.
“The girls asked us for the book in Swahili so their family and friends back home, many of whom do not speak English, can learn about oral health care. We asked the girls to help translate it,” he said. “This experience empowered the girls and young women to go back and teach their families. Our theme is also self-empowerment so they can take care of themselves, and this has motivated them to also share their knowledge and help others. This educational program has improved their overall and dental health plus helped their self-image.”