Columbia University, University of Nairobi, Unilever Partner to Address Oral Health issues in East Africa

Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah (right) with Colombia University, Chair- College of Dental Medicine, Dr. Kavita Ahluwalia

Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah (right) with Colombia University, Chair- College of Dental Medicine, Dr. Kavita Ahluwalia

Columbia University, University of Nairobi, Unilever Partner to Address

A new partnership between Columbia University, the University of Nairobi, and Unilever was announced at a two-day East Africa Oral Health Summit (March 22-23), the beginning of a long-term effort to bring new energy and thinking to a tenacious age-old problem.

Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah (right) with Colombia University, Chair- College of Dental Medicine, Dr. Kavita Ahluwalia
Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah (right) with Colombia University, Chair- College of Dental Medicine, Dr. Kavita Ahluwalia

The summit brought together over 100 leaders in oral health from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the United States. The experts identified regional priorities for oral health care and prevention, education, and policy formulation and also defined steps to address existing gaps and develop a plan to support the integration of oral health and health through targeted preventive and educational policies.

The National Oral Health Survey 2015 shows that there are only 1,000 dentists in Kenya serving a population of 42 million people, which translates to a ratio of 1:42,000, which is far below the WHO recommendation 1:7,000 people. Moreover, a majority of dentists are based in urban areas leaving he vast majority of rural Kenyans without a source of oral health care.

Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah signs the Oral Health pledge. With her is, Colombia University Dean, College of Dental Studies, Dr. Christian Stohler (left) and Director, IFAP Global Health Program, Dr. Stephen Nicholas  (right).
Unilever Vice President Personal Care, Ms Debrah Mallowah signs the Oral Health pledge. With her is, Colombia University Dean, College of Dental Studies, Dr. Christian Stohler (left) and Director, IFAP Global Health Program, Dr. Stephen Nicholas (right).

Professor Jacob Kaimenyi, an eminent dentist and now Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development noted in his key note address, “Funding for Oral is less than 1 per cent of the budget allocated to the Ministry of Health – despite the fact that the demand for oral health services far outstrips the supply of funds. It is time all stakeholders in Health Care and Oral Health lobby parliament to demand more funds to address this serious problem and give more visibility to this critical health issue.”

“The time has come for a radical change in our thinking about teeth and the mouth,” said Dr. Christian Stohler, Dean of the College of Dental Medicine at Columbia University.  “This is not just about a pretty smile.  Good oral health is central to overall health.  We can fix a diseased mouth and more importantly, we can prevent it from getting sick.”

Eminent Dentist, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi delivers his speech during the Oral Health Summit held at Radisson Blu Hotel
Eminent Dentist, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Prof. Jacob Kaimenyi delivers his speech during the Oral Health Summit held at Radisson Blu Hotel

Sustainable models of oral care delivery were presented at the summit. Debra Mallowah, Vice President for Personal Care at Unilever, expressed her belief that the new partnership can support community-level demonstration projects that will inform national policy.  “The behaviour change program on preventive and promotional services is aimed at encouraging the younger generation to adopt oral hygiene practices to help keep dental problems at bay,” she said. “This could result in significant benefits lasting throughout life.”

“Our key focus will be to develop an oral health policy that will be adopted and implemented by the Ministry of Health in each country, tailored to local needs. The policy will give direction on how to improve the oral health status of citizens,” noted Professor Loice Gathece, Dean of the School of Dental Sciences at the University of Nairobi. “Oral health is overlooked, but when this is pointed out, our leaders immediately recognize that this is something important to be addressed,” pointed out Dr. Regina Mutave, Chair of Periodontology, Community and Preventive Dentistry at the University of Nairobi.

“We have chosen to engage stakeholders from East African region because the three countries were the original members of the East African Community, and share common history, ethnicity and language, and co-operate both politically and economically,” stated Dr. Kavita Ahluwalia, one of the key conveners of the conference and an Associate Professor of Dental Medicine at Columbia University.  “We have a great deal to learn from their experiences and insights and we are prepared to work alongside them to support their vision of how best to address oral health needs.”

Unilever’s Pepsodent brand in collaboration with the Kenya Dental Association recently launched a behaviour change program for primary schools to improve oral hygiene among 1 million children across the country. The program will educate and empower school children in Kenya to be ambassadors of change towards adopting oral health practices in their families, especially, brushing everyday – day and night – so as to protect themselves and their families against dental problems.

“We want to help people feel good, look good and get more out of life,” said Debra Mallowah. “We believe that our key message – brush every day, day and night, will curb tooth decay. This will significantly reduce dental care medical costs and school absenteeism for children due to dental problems. We will provide affordable pack sizes of the toothpaste at a 10% cheaper price to encourage correct toothpaste dosage and improve frequency of brushing.”

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