World Oral Health Day: Help the world 'Smile for Life'

According to the World Dental Federation, 90% of the world's population will suffer from oral diseases in their lifetime -- yet many of these diseases can be avoided. Globally, dental care is a health issue that fails to receive the attention it deserves. From India and Haiti to even here in the U.S., where 181 million Americans didn't see a dentist last year, people often do not understand the consequences of poor oral hygiene.

Today, March 20, is World Oral Health Day (WOHD), intended to celebrate the benefits of a healthy mouth and increase worldwide awareness of oral health issues, which are increasingly connected to overall human health. For example, gum disease is linked to a host of illnesses, including heart disease, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found possible associations between oral infections -- particularly periodontal disease -- and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even adverse pregnancy outcomes.

This year's WOHD theme is "Smile for Life" -- an admirable sentiment, but one that requires a serious commitment from a variety of parties, including the government, dental associations, and society in general. To smile, one would say you must be both healthy and happy -- and in my experience, education and putting that knowledge into action are the keys to making "Smile for Life" a reality.

My parents are from Haiti, and it has always been a mission of mine to serve those from my homeland. I've led two dental missions to Haiti, including one last November, which was right before the fifth anniversary of the horrific earthquake that devastated the island. It was during these trips that I truly understood the need for dental care internationally and the dire results of not having a healthy mouth.

“I felt our team was literally giving people back their smiles, and with education, they can keep them for life.”

For all the improvements Haiti has had since the earthquake, including better homes and road conditions, one thing has not changed: the lack of access to dental care. Dental education is almost absent there. Without proper oral care, tooth decay was rampant in Haiti, and it was common to have extraction as a patient's only option. It's sad to see, but most preventive care is almost nonexistent, especially in a place like Haiti where dental care takes a back seat to basic survival.

This is why I am a dentist. Not only can we help people, we can change lives. On this trip, I felt our team was literally giving people back their smiles, and with education, they can keep them for life.

These missions are always humbling experiences, and I'm glad to have met so many dentists and other dental professionals who share the same philanthropic passion. I feel privileged to be part of an organization that shares this mission of giving back to those who need it most in the U.S. and abroad, providing me with the time and resources to give free dental care to almost 400 patients during my last weeklong trip to Haiti.

I have met dentists who own and operate practices from around the country who have done missions in many far-reaching places, such as Nigeria, India, Nicaragua, Honduras, South Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and more. With our efforts combined, we've helped thousands of patients around the world -- yet, sadly, it's still only a drop in the bucket of the larger pool of people who desperately need dental care.

It is important that we, as dental professionals, take steps to help reduce this massive gap in quality oral health around the world. If that means donating time, money, or your hand, it's a worthy cause, especially on this World Oral Health Day. Working together, there's no telling the difference we can make.

With that said, where will you be this #WOHD15?

Dr. Chedly Schatzie Vincent is director of clinical support and community giving at Aspen Dental Management. She has been practicing dentistry for more than 10 years.

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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