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Program brings dental care to Syrians

April 21, 2014

Buffalo, N.Y.—More than 5,600 miles separate Buffalo, N.Y., and Syrian refugee camps in border towns in Turkey and Jordan, but a Buffalo dentist has enlisted the help of the city's dental community and residents to help millions affected by a devastating civil war.

Moved by the conflict and its effects on some 2.5 million refugees, Dr. Othman Shibly, associate director of the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine's Center for Dental Studies, wanted to help. The son of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, he grew up in Lebanon and attended dental school in Syria before coming to the U.S. in the 1990s.

Dr. Shibly got involved in dental relief for Syrians after Dr. Mohammed Al-Nahhas, a dentist in Panama City, Fla., started providing dental care in collaboration with Syrian American Medical Society. With portable dental chairs and equipment, volunteers provided emergency treatment in several areas in Turkey.

"I visited Turkey in July 2012," said Dr. Shibly. "Those refugees are people like us, but they happen to be in the wrong time and the wrong place and they deserve full dental services. Medical relief for Syrians is generally very good. But there is not enough dental care. At first, volunteers were concentrating on war injuries—thoracic and head and neck problems—as well as emergency dental care that was mostly extractions."

Dr. Shibly proposed establishing fully equipped clinics that could offer comprehensive dental services.

After raising about $11,000 in the Buffalo community and $5,000 from dental school colleagues, Dr. Shibly was able to secure $44,000 in grants from Human Concern International, a Canadian relief agency that works in the Middle East, to open clinics in two border cities in Turkey, Killis and Reyhanle.

Dr. Shibly has also received some support from the dental industry, receiving donations of materials and supplies from Ivoclar and Ultradent.

After learning that children in war-torn areas near Damascus were coming to school hungry because of food shortages and in danger of chemical attacks, the Buffalo community also reached out to sponsor 14 schools serving 4,000 Syrian children. Classrooms are located in basements to protect children from chemical attacks.

Dr. Shibly emphasized they need a protocol for dental care in areas of conflict at last month's American Association for Dental Research meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in his presentation, The Impact of Force Immigration of Syrians on Dental Care.

His survey of the volunteer dentists at the Syrian border of Jordan and Turkey found that each dental clinic treats a minimum of 50 patients daily and more than 1,290 patients a month. About 75 percent of patients are women and children.

Challenges for dentists include refugees' psychological stress, lack of dental awareness, increased percentage of smokers and overcrowded dental clinics. Refugees sometimes travel hundreds of miles for dental care.

"What we found is that new clinics and more staff are needed to treat these patients. And preventive care services—including oral hygiene instruction, toothbrushes, fluoride treatment and tobacco counseling—need to be expanded. Dentists at these clinics also need training to address the psychological stress of their patients," said Dr. Shibly.

This spring, Dr. Shibly will lead a team of oral surgeons to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. His is also planning a relief trip to Turkey and Lebanon in June.

"The need is great," said Dr. Shibly. "There are more than 4.5 million refugees and more than 9 million in dire need for help. I hope to find groups of dentists or organizations that are interested in funding dental clinics in refugee camps and areas of need."

He estimates that it costs $15,000-$20,000 to start a clinic and $3,000 per month to operate it. Other expenses include $1,000 to sponsor a volunteer dentist and $2,000 to purchase dental materials.

The Syrian American Dental Society seeks donations for the dental program. Visit sams-usa.net for more information.

"Something good can happen when you have good intentions," Dr. Shibly added. "There are many people doing all they can on a personal level to make things better. It is my hope that in the world there is pressure to end the conflict and misery."

For more information on Dr. Shibly's work, email shibly@buffalo.edu or call 1-716-480-9647. To learn more about international volunteer opportunities, visit the ADA International Volunteer Web page or contact the ADA Division of Global Affairs, ext. 2726.