18 May 2018
Northland New Zealand Army Reservist Denise Mariu has just two words for the tooth decay she encountered on an island in Vanuatu: “Damn sugar”.
Dental hygienist Warrant Officer 1 Mariu, from Ohaeawai, went with a team of 10 Royal New Zealand Dental Corps personnel to Epi Island during the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Exercise Tropic Major earlier this month.
The exercise was a based on a fictitious scenario involving a breakdown of law and order on Epi Island, prompting the Vanuatu Government to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for its citizens. A New Zealand Joint Task Force of about 500, embarked on HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington, went to the island to help restore order.
While the exercise was taking place the team was busy providing dental treatment and medical education to villagers on the island.
In five days the team helped more than 300 people and performed 650 dental procedures. Three dentists worked from 7.30am to 5pm each day in a clinic with generators for power, using headlamps for consistent light. Some villagers walked for hours to see them.
The clinic, in Lamen Bay, had little in the way of privacy. It could fit three patients in the unlit room with open windows and doors, while dozens more, in every age group, waited outside.
Warrant Officer Mariu said the first priority was relief of pain, then looking at what would cause future pain. They also provided oral health information, with one person travelling through the villages to visit parents and children.
“The big issues are sugar and decay,” she said. “I’ve been on a lot of these deployments and it’s cheap drinks and sweets, with kids sucking on them all day.”
Language was a barrier, with many villagers not speaking English.
“Most people speak five languages, with village dialects, so we had to keep things quite simple. We have interpreters, and I speak a bit of Bislama.”
With more than 60 people each day wanting treatment, time management was important.
“We can’t spend two hours on a person and have another miss out. Root canals were not an option - it means an extraction.”
The locals were very hardy, she said.
“One person had seven extractions in one mouth. They have walked here, and they walk home.”
On the last day, it was almost heart-breaking to start packing up, she said.
“We could go for weeks like this.”
The team prepared for Tropic Major by providing free dental care in Bay of Plenty in April.
“Vanuatu is not so different when you get out to the rural places in New Zealand. We have similar problems.”