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Supporting oral health in Vanuatu through Tooth Buddies

How a love of sailing, combined with a desire to do some good in the world, led to the establishment of a life-changing, grassroots supervised school tooth brushing program in Vanuatu that is receiving international support and recognition and directly involves 4,000 children daily at 72 kindies and schools.

Many of us have holidayed in Vanuatu. Maybe it was a cruise-ship stopover, or a family getaway at a local resort. Regardless, as many people can attest, it’s the smiles and friendly welcomes that create the most enduring memories from a Vanuatu ‘experience’. At least, that’s how it was for me. 

I’m not a dentist, but as things turned out, I now know an awful lot about the state of oral health in Vanuatu, through the organisation I co-founded in 2009, called Medical Sailing Ministries Inc.

As a sailor, it all started after reading a magazine article in 2004 about a group of people using a yacht to take teams of health professionals, including dentists, around the remote islands and villages of Vanuatu; an archipelago nation comprising over 60 inhabited islands, just 3-hours flying time to the east of Australia.

At the time, I remember thinking … “I’d love to do that” … but sadly, I did not own a boat.  Further, in my limited understanding, I actually thought Port Vila was Vanuatu and my only medical training was doing the First Aid Badge back in my scouting days. 

As it turned out, the idea just would not go away. Put it down to a compulsive personality perhaps, but within a few years I had bought a 53-foot yacht jointly with my brother Andrew.  Supportive non-sailors, also stepped forward to help, plus we stumbled across a group called the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project, that needed boat transport to access remote locations on their annual outreach missions.

So it was that with the aid of 100-or-more volunteers, both sailors and health professionals, Medical Sailing Ministries provided transport and logistical support in 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2017, aboard the Melbourne-based yacht Chimere.

It may have started as a sea-based transport venture, but soon it was transformed by encountering the extent and impact, of poor oral health.  I will never forget the look on the faces of people who would come to the eye clinics, often clutching the side of their face, asking the question … “yu pullim toot?”   

Some had suffered toothache for years, and as early supporter, volunteer and dentist, Dr Barry Stewart, discovered – after doing a small-scale survey back in 2013 – the extent of tooth decay and gum disease was highly correlated with ease of access to sweets, fizzy drinks, and sugary treats; surprise, surprise?

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It was around this time that we helped establish the Vanuatu Dental Care Service, with a particular focus on education and prevention, in association with our close in-country partner PCV Health (the health arm of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu)

Then, in 2017, with further prompting and guidance from Dr Barry, we completed the ambitious task of coordinating a full-scale National Oral Health Survey of the whole country; on behalf of the Vanuatu Ministry of Health. This led to the writing of the first ever National Oral Health Policy for Vanuatu, along with the completion of a 20-week supervised school tooth brushing trial in 2018; again, by Dr Barry.

Prior to the National Oral Health Survey, everyone knew things were bad.  Now we knew just how bad.   Like, 70% of 5-7-year-olds having tooth decay and bleeding gums, one-in-ten children suffering toothache in the past month and around 20% needing urgent treatment now  (Refer Fact Sheet)  Plus, around 40% of people said they rarely, or never brushed their teeth.

As simple as it sounds, the best way forward – to make a real and lasting impact – seemed to be supervised brushing-of-teeth-in-schools.  So, with the generous assistance of the FDI, ICD and more recently the W.H.O., we have developed a highly structured program called Gudfala Tut Skul (pronounced Good-fella Toot Skool) which means Healthy Tooth School. This is run in association with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health and PCV Health, and currently involves around 4,000 children in 72 kindies and schools. 

With the generous assistance of DentaLife Australia, we have developed our very own bubblegum flavoured, pink, coconut oil-based toothpaste, containing 1350ppm of fluoride, which we manufacture in Vanuatu. This not only creates local employment, but also reduces waste, with the toothpaste dispensed in returnable and refillable 500ml bottles.

The growth of the Gudfala Tut Skul Program from one school to seventy-two, in the space of just 4 years, has been very satisfying. But there’s a dilemma. Grant-funding runs out, but for maximum benefit it is important that the brushing program continues year-after-year, to ensure the brushing habit sticks.

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Enter … TOOTH BUDDIES … our strategy for building sustainable funding for this grassroots program, while providing a way for individuals, dental clinics and groups to directly sponsor a kindy or school.


For the cost of just three cappuccinos – around $12 – a child can participate in the program, for a whole year, with sponsors able to choose their level of commitment, either one-off, or ongoing; with all donations being tax deductible. 

Why not partner with us by becoming a Tooth Buddy? Discover more at the Tooth Buddies website, www.toothbuddies.com.au

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