What We Do
Every year from July until October (the dry season in the Andes), Dental Project Peru makes trips into the Cusco and Apurimac regions of Peru to provide dental care and education in indigenous villages to patients who otherwise would have no access to pain relief or oral healthcare awareness.
Our dental team is headed up by our Peruvian dentist, Yesenia Yepez Vasquez. She has been working with DPP for over 5 years and has a vast knowledge of how to organize and deliver dental care in these remote and unique circumstances. As well as our driver there is space on each trip for 2-3 other volunteers. These volunteers, in general, are Peruvian dental professionals.
The team loads up our 4x4 truck with all the necessary supplies and equipment and sets off for the communities which takes between 4 and 12 hours to get there depending on the villages we are to visit on each trip. The journey is fantastic. Passing through the Sacred Valley of the Incas if visiting communities in the Cusco region. Or, if visiting the Apurimac, crossing over two major river canyons, the Santo Thomas and the Apurimac, each nearly 3000 meters deep! See the photo below of the road as it zig-zags down the gorge!!
These deep canyons are what make the Apurimac department so unique and unfortunately so economically depressed. From Cusco the region is only 50 miles as the crow flies but takes over 7 hours by rough dirt road to get there. The ruggedness of the canyons and marginal road access has cut the area off from integration into the world economy. Upon crossing the river gorges, it seems like you have traveled back in time to what the area must have looked like to the arriving Spanish Conquistadors. The local people of the region are Quechua speaking indigenous highlanders who scratch a living out of the extreme geography and landscape around them.
Although extremely remote, in the last 8 years, merchants from the neighboring cities of Cusco and Arequipa have introduced processed foods and refined sugars into the local diet. The merchants come into the main town centers to trade for local crops from the people in exchange for these new food items that did not exist before. This major change in diet has been a factor in the eruption of rampant oral infection. Medical and Dental care is virtually non-existent due to the huge distances most people would have to travel to reach it, the costs involved and implications of leaving their family and livestock alone for multiple days. Education, and in particular, oral health education has never been something these people have had little or no exposure to.
When we are in the villages we set up the DPP dental surgery in the local Health Post or school. Some villages do not have running water or electricity. And in other places the road is impassable to the Health Post and so the local people help us carry the equipment (sometimes on horseback) to their village.
We work as closely as possible with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education of Peru. Although they do not provide any funding or resources for our work, we do rely on the infrastructure between the schools and within the Health Posts to spread the word of our arrival. And often this works well with teachers being told of the date we will be there and thus bringing children from neighboring communities to receive their treatment. Adults and children may walk for up to 7 hours to arrive at the Health Post where we work.
Starting with the children, all prospective patients line up to be screened for pain, infection and decay by one of our dentists. We have the ability to do extractions and also basic restorative dentistry (fillings) with the use of a portable compressor and drill.
The majority of the work is extractions as many teeth are too badly decayed or infected to save. But it is extremely satisfying when we save teeth. Like this lady - we filled her front teeth and gave her her smile back!
Although extractions and fillings are the majority of our work, occassionally we do some minor surgeries. For example, we completed a gum surgery on this young girl to reveal her front teeth that had failed to erupt on their own. Again, giving a patient her smile!
Another important part of our work is conducting oral healthcare awareness classes and tooth brushing demonstrations. We have a great interactive educational model which the children love. It explains what food and drink items are good and bad for their teeth. It is a successful way of showing the relationship of certain food groups with the decay they have in their mouths. And it is a lot of fun for the children!
We provide every patient with a new toothbrush and conduct demonstrations on why they need to brush and basic brushing techniques. For children, their toothbrushes are kept at school and the teacher conducts a daily brushing session with the whole class. Returning to each village the next year, we replace the children's brushes and screen their mouths once again. We have seen a drastic decline in cavities amongst the school children since our previous years visits.
The team works for one or two days in each village. The work can be very demanding if many schools arrive. It has been known for us to screen over 400 children in one day and treat over 250 of them! We sleep and eat in either the Health Posts or local lodgings. Conditions are challenging but the rewards are unrivelled!