Timor Leste (East Timor) has a population of 1.1 million people. Of the less than 10 dentists in the country, almost all practice privately in Dili, the capital. There are a few free dental clinics – also located in Dili. In comparison, the vast majority of East Timorese live rurally, reliant on subsistence farming. Hence, for the majority of East Timorese, dental treatment is something that is both financially and logistically unattainable. The Timorese government has tried to address this need by employing Indonesian-trained East Timorese dental ‘nurses’ in some rural hospitals. Unfortunately, these individuals are poorly trained, have minimal experience and are expected to attend their communities’ dental needs with almost no equipment.
The Timor Leste Dental Program is based in Maubara, a town 60km west of Dili, a trip of about 1 1/2 hours. Each year, several teams of volunteer Australian dentists, dental assistants and other dental professionals give two weeks to help our nearest neighbours. The purpose of the program is two-fold: Firstly, to support the rurally-emplaced Timorese dental nurses with equipment, training and mentoring so that they can better serve their communities. Secondly, to provide much-needed dental care to the people living in rural areas of western Timor L’este.
Timorese communities suffer from high rates of dental decay and much of our treatment involves extraction of teeth that have caused pain for years. Many people have never seen a dentist before. The chewing of betel nut is common and so there are also many extractions due to gum disease. There is also a high incidence of oral cancer and tuberculosis-influenced oral infection. We see many things over there that simply do not exist here in Australia.