Improving the oral health of children in Kibera, Kenya

Sejal Bhansali discusses her efforts trying to put a toothbrush in the hands of 8,000 children across Kibera, Kenya during the COVID pandemic.

I was born in Nairobi but have lived in the UK all my life. We still have a family home there and pre-COVID I would visit regularly. Nairobi has a special place in my heart.

I met Linda Greenwall from the Dental Wellness Trust (DWT), which provides dental health to thousands of children in the UK and internationally daily, through supervised toothbrushing programmes and oral health education.

She suggested setting up the Nairobi branch of the DWT. So, following her example of the tremendous work she carries out in South Africa, I decided to take the leap and the rest followed.

Armed with 200 toothbrushes, I chose the Raila Education Academy, in Kibera, Nairobi.

Kibera factfile

Kibera is the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. It has a population of almost 2 million people.

Until recently Kibera had no water. Water was all collected from the Nairobi dam. The dam water is not clean and causes typhoid and cholera.

Today there are two mains water pipes into Kibera, one from the municipal council and one from the World Bank. They serve around 250,000 inhabitants.

Only about 20% of Kibera has electricity. In most of Kibera, there are no toilet facilities; up to 50 shacks can share one latrine (hole in the ground).

In Kibera there are no government clinics or hospitals, health clinics, dispensaries, maternity homes, nursing homes, medical centres, laboratories and radiological services. Dental clinics are owned by non-governmental organisations and private individuals. The population is very reliant on charity donations.

Expanding the programme

I trained the teacher Everline how to carry out the programme. Since then, we have ensured the children are brushing their teeth at least once a day.

Trips like this allow you to develop a sense of pride, especially when you see the smiles on children’s’ faces.

On return to the UK, I felt an itch of frustration for not being able to do more. Linda and I brainstormed and pleaded with Colgate to expand our programme to more schools. We finally got the go ahead, with the programme expanded to 8,000 children. I was excited and all set to visit in March 2020, but COVID struck and flights were grounded.

COVID-19 impact

COVID has hit Kenya hard. They have been under curfew for most of the year. The government has shut schools intermittently, consequently leaving children suffering.

Not wanting to have the virus defeat me, I decided to think outside the box. I was lucky to be introduced to Mark Boyd from the Safari Collection Footprint, Giraffe Manor, Nairobi. Mark is also based in Nairobi and supports conservation projects.

Now that schools are reopen, with the help of Mark on the ground and my aunt, Mrs Kalpana Gathani who is based in Nairobi, with logistics and coordinating from the UK, last week we carried out the pilot for the programme at the school in Kibera, with teacher Everline supervising children.

It was a great success. We will finally expand the programme to reach our goal of providing toothbrushes and toothpastes to enable regular daily brushing, to 8,000 children.

If you would like to get involved, please email me on [email protected] and follow my Instagram page @drsejalbds.

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