Saving children’s teeth in Sudan – without anaesthetic or drills

Tooth decay is the most common chronic dental disease in the world. It affects 60-90% of children around the world, according to the World Dental Federation. It is 20 times more common than diabetes and five times more common than asthma. If left untreated, it can cause pain and abscesses and may require root treatment or even extraction. This can traumatise children for life.

The usual way to treat tooth decay is to drill out the rot and then cover the tooth with a thin stainless steel cap. This is considered the gold standard treatment, but it requires a local anaesthetic, lots of time, specialist skills and, for the dentist, the patience of a saint. If the child is anxious – and many are – they often have to be admitted to hospital to have the work carried out under a general anaesthetic. 

But consider a child living in poverty in East Africa with no running water or electricity, and the nearest dentist a day or two’s walk away. Would you imagine that their care would be similar to a child in the West? And do you think their decayed teeth would be saved?

I work as a dentist in Sudan providing care for children with these exact circumstances. By the age of 12, almost all children in Sudan know what it is like to have had a tooth extracted. For a country of 40m people, we have just eight children’s dentists.

What if I were to tell you that all we need to do to save a child’s tooth is to ignore the rot, seal it by gluing a cap on the bad tooth and do nothing else? And would you believe me if I told you that this is just as effective as the costly standard treatment?

A 2006 analysis of primary care records, showed that this simple technique, known as the Hall technique, was effective in treating children in Scotland. It works by starving the tooth-rotting germs of oxygen. 

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