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17.11.2015

"In Germany, nobody dies of an abscess any more - it's a different story in Madagascar"

Dentist Jana Brandner and dental hygienist Katharina Hailer working on the Africa Mercy. The dental hygienist Katharina Haller works in a dental practice in Türkheim. Some years ago, a serious car accident changed her life. "I almost died" as she told us: "my chances of survival were very low." Her long-term and complete recovery verged on a miracle. She owes her life to good doctors who were at the right place at the right time. "I soon came to realise that other people in the world don't have this good fortune because they don't have access to a doctor. This is why I wanted to do my part to tryand change this situation, not just with charitable donations, but my own skills." She applied to work on the MS Africa Mercy, the new, stateof-the-art flagship of the Mercy Ships organisation which brings medical aid to the poorest people along the African coast. In February 2015 I made my way to Madagascar. A different motivation brought the dentist Jana Brandner and her assistants Sabine Hänert and Michaela Rothfeld from Jena to begin their two-week service on the Africa Mercy in the April of this year. Also seeking to help poor people in other parts of the world, but they also wanted to test their personal resistance and teamwork.

Heaven and hell in one

With its white beaches, palm trees and inviting coastline, Madagascar would appear to be the dream destination of every holiday: pepper plantations, the lapping of the Indian Ocean and exotic animals. Nevertheless, illness can transform this paradise into hell on earth. As Katharina Hailer tells us: "the doctor to patient ratio amounts to some 29 to 100,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom cannot afford treatment anyway. "Those patiently queueing up for treatment have usually walked for days to reach the doctor, usually to the hospital ship which docks in the container harbour at Tamatave, or the dental clinic on land in which I worked. Many of the patients were unable to read and write and had to sign the patient questionnaire with their fingerprint. The majority of people in Madagascar are extremely poor and only visit the dentist when the pain is so acute that the tooth has to be drawn."

Pulling teeth round the clock

"During the day it was non-stop extractions – around 60 teeth per dentist per day," said Jana Brandner. Unfortunately, with seeing as many as 60 - 80 patients on average there was virtually no time for private conversations. Our main goal was to relieve as many patients as possible from their toothache – which meant extraction in over 90 percent of the cases. She continued: "almost all of the people on Madagascar have poor teeth largely due to malnutrition and a lack of oral hygiene. "The people there really don't have a clue about dental hygiene, there is simply no education and no money to buy toothbrushes and toothpaste. As such, » Mercy Ships also distributes teeth-cleaning sets and employs local staff to inform patients in the waiting room about the importance of home dental care. They use pictures and other visual materials to teach them how to use a toothbrush and toothpaste."

Moving individual stories

The Africa Mercy is fitted with five modern operating theatres for complicated cases and serious surgical treatment. Some 400 dentists and their assistants work on the ship. Treatment is free for the patients, benefiting those in particular who otherwise have no access to medical care.

Katharina Hailer remembers a man with an abscess in his jaw. Having made it to the ship in time, she told us " had he waited any longer, he would have died." This obviously made a considerable impression on her. "Such a story is inconceivable for us: in Germany people hardly ever die due to an abscess."

Jana Brandner also experienced a number of things which she will never forget, "Once we had to extract all the front teeth from a 12 year-old child because they were all so badly damaged. That kind of thing hits home very hard." "There were also many young men and women who had to have entire rows of teeth removed because they were in such a poor state."

She found working conditions on the ship stressful: the treatment room was air-conditioned, but with nine teams working at the same time, it could get very noisy. There was very little time to comfort the patients who were often afraid, especially the children. Katharina Hailer reports similar experiences: "many of the children were orphans and lived in an SOS Children's Village. Whole groups of children were bussed to the dentist and they were all missing the attention of mum and dad. Many of the small children were afraid and cried out. We were unable to respond as we would have liked, as this represented the only chance for treatment. This was rather difficult.“

A positive experience

Despite the individual nature of their experiences, the German volunteers all agreed: "this experience has enriched our lives and changed our view of the world," said Jana Brandner. "We have become aware of quite how lucky we are to live here in Germany. Even if our assistance was very short-lived, we really felt that it made a difference to the lives of those on Madagascar and that they really appreciated our work." Katharina Hailer added: "heaven and hell are very close together in Madagascar. But this has not put me off, and I should like to return next year. The people were unable to give us anything in return except gratitude, and this is beyond price."

Published by: rf/tk 04/16
A picturesque landscape: at the first glance, Madagascar is the perfect travel destination

A picturesque landscape: at the first glance, Madagascar is the perfect travel destination

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