Late last month, Canada welcomed its 25,000th Syrian refugee in response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the century and also based on the fulfillment of the Liberal government’s campaign promise. The plane carrying Canada’s newest citizens arrived at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport on a cold Canadian evening and was greeted by a number of local and national charitable groups who are working to integrate the new arrivals into communities across the country.
While the arrival of each plane has been symbolic of the conclusion of a painful chapter for those fleeing, despite the safe arrival, the long-journey of establishing a home has only begun for those lucky enough to make it to Canada.
Part of beginning of the resettlement process has been assessing and vetting the general physical health of those who have been living in refugee camps and in exile for months and, in some cases, years. Vitamin and mineral deficiency from poor diets is one of the most common diagnosis. However, health issues have also been attributed to poor oral health care.
“Unfortunately, in times of war and conflict, proper oral health care often goes to the wayside,” said Ontario-based dentist Mark Walker. “Lack of access to health professionals, coupled with living in a high-stress situation where toothbrushes and toothpaste may not be accessible can exacerbate minor oral problems into large scale ones.”
Dentist Mark Walker points out that an oral health issue can make eating painful. “In conditions where caloric intake is decreased, missing a meal because of mouth or tooth pain can quickly turn a bad situation much worse,” says Dr. Mark Walker.
In order to treat the high demand for basic oral care amongst the Syrian refugees, a number of organizations across the country have begun offering free assessments and treatments. In Ottawa, the Public Health department for example is holding free clinics every Friday until the end of May. Unfortunately, the oral health of many patients at the two Ottawa public health clinics has been much worse than attending dentists had expected.
Pediatric dentist Mandana Nikoui has worked at the clinics and is surprised at the amount of oral problems many of her young patients have. She recently saw two brothers (7, 9) who had been living in a refugee camp for a year and a half and had never received any type of oral care.
“They need immediate medical attention,” Nikoui said. “Both boys’ teeth are rotten down to the gum lines.”
The city’s dental officer of health, Aaron Burry, believes the issues may take years to address. “They can’t care for themselves so they are facing a lot more dental issues than you would see in the [general] population,” Bury said.
This is a sentiment that is being echoed across the country, as public health offices begin the task of helping the refugees regain their health.
Volunteers in Calgary have gone mobile, offering basic oral health care off the Dental Health Bus. The mobile health provider which serves a different area weekly has been booked solid since it pulled up to its first location.
Dr. Raman Minhas is an area dentist who works on the bus and spends a majority of his time assessing levels of oral infection. “Just getting infections cleared up, getting people healthy,” Minhas said is the goal. “It won’t be a lot of focus on prettying up the teeth. It’s just getting infections controlled.”
The dental health community across the country is working to help improve oral health of Syrian refugees and give them something to smile about.