Dentists without borders
When poverty and drought make water inaccessible, when bullets fly in the night sky, people don't think much about oral health.
But as the global health community accepts how essential the mouth is to a sound body - mere cavities can cause serious infections and malnutrition - new initiatives are being proposed to bring help to the areas most in need.
The Alliance for Oral Health Across Borders is still in its infant stages and has yet to secure funding, but 100 dentists, academics, and industry leaders from around the globe gathered at Temple University earlier this month to sign their inaugural charter.
The leaders exchanged ideas enthusiastically, referring often to Doctors Without Borders as a model they would like to emulate. They too want to reach out to places facing the most dire conditions.
"Anything to uplift the quality of human worth," said Lawrence Bud Krasne, who represented Nova Southeastern University's College of Dental Medicine in North Miami Beach, Fla., "by treating their teeth and their mouth . . . because if they can't chew, they can't eat, and they're going to get sick."
Dentists are used to being seen disparagingly, as practicing a less important aspect of medical expertise, and sometimes they struggle to be taken seriously. Unlike Doctors Without Borders, whose members are first responders to trauma, the alliance wants to establish itself primarily as a promoter of research, training, and peace.
For example, Somalia, with its long list of crises, has only 15 dentists to treat the entire population, according to data gathered by Malmo University in Sweden. More important, the country has no institution to educate dentists. Such schooling would be a prime focus for the alliance.
"Don't give them the fish. Teach them to fish," suggested David Mock, dean of the dental school at the University of Toronto. Toward that end, the alliance wants to set up educational exchanges between nations. And if an exchange can happen between two areas with a history of hostility, so much the better.
The idea for the alliance derives from the success of an unlikely duo in Jerusalem. Adam Stabholz is dean at Hebrew University Dental School. Musa Bajali is dean of Al-Quds University, the city's only Arabic university. Together, the men founded Bridges to Peace - a training program for Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian dental students at Hebrew University.
Stabholz's brand of diplomacy was first conducted at the D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education, named after a well-known Philadelphia dentist. For 30 years Cohen was a professor and dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, and now he is chancellor emeritus of Drexel University's College of Medicine.
In 1976, when Cohen was dean at Penn Dental, Philadelphia was a mecca of dentistry. Stabholz won a two-year fellowship to study there and then established his own program.
"We are doing the same model with the Palestinian dental students because they are a very young school," Stabholz said of Al-Quds. "We take their best students and then they go back to become leaders at their own school."
In 1997, just a few years after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty, educators such as Stabholz were euphoric. That was when Cohen established the Middle East Center.
High spirits were temporary, though, as conflict in the region grew. The enrollment of students from Gaza and Morocco dwindled.
Stabholz and Bajali kept trying to put Cohen's ideas into practice. In 2000, Al-Quds established its dental school and with Hebrew University's help graduated its first class in 2005.
Stabholz and Bajali decided to share their ideas, speaking at international dental symposiums in Stockholm and London. They wanted others to join their mission to establish a partnership on a global scale.
One of the first people to take serious interest in the project was Amid Ismail, dean of the Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University.
Ismail, who received his degree from the University of Baghdad, left Iraq soon after his graduation in 1979, when Saddam Hussein took power. Ismail never returned.
"In the '50s and '60s, we had the most advanced education system in the Middle East," Ismail said. "All of that was destroyed."
During the gathering at Temple, dentists from 16 countries sat in workshops to discuss what the alliance could be. Many mentioned academic exchanges, and others desired a more hands-on response to conflict.
Ismail, who was elected the alliance's chairman, says the first mission will be modest: to build dialogue in many countries. Since the group is targeting some of the most contentious parts of the globe, that in itself will represent some healing.