Clinic Opens in Nation with Just 5 Dentists

Richard Gawel


There are 1.2 million people in the Southeast Asian nation of East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, with 5 dentists to serve them all—and 4 of them are in the capital city of Dili on the northern coast. Also, there are 54 dental nurses, or one for every 20,000 people.

“Consequently, the population suffers from generally poor dental health,” said Dr. Deborah Cole, CEO of Dental Health Services Victoria (DHSV), which has donated a pair of dental chairs and staff to assist in opening a new clinic in the town of Balibo in the west.

Balibo was the site of several battles during the Indonesian invasion of 1975, and Australian-based journalists now known as the Balibo Five were killed by Indonesian forces during those hostilities. The Balibo House Trust was established to honor their memory and enrich the lives of the town’s people.

“Balibo is a small village of about 4,000. Including the surrounding villages, there would be a population of about 15,000 to 20,000,” said Terry Bracks, executive officer of the Balibo House Trust. “It is a very poor community, with a very young population who survive mainly on subsistence agriculture.”

As a project of the Balibo House Trust, the clinic was established to improve the oral health of the local population by providing access to dental treatment, community education, and prevention programs. Volunteer dentists from Australia will staff the clinic.

“Poor nutrition is a leading risk factor for poor oral health as the nutritional status of children and adults in Timor-Leste remains significantly below world standards,” Cole said. “We are delighted that together with other organizations such as Rotary we could make a real difference in so many people’s lives.”

The organizers expect volunteers to perform extractions to relieve pain in the wake of very poor dental conditions, though fillings also are possible. Periodontal disease with significant calculus buildup is very common too, so heavy-duty cleanings are expected as well.

The nation’s government emphasizes medical services over dental services, Bracks said, who added that he didn’t believe there was any dental training at all in Timor.

“It is vitally important to note that oral health affects all aspects of general health,” said Cole. “We expect that as the oral health of this community improves, so will their general well-being.”

To participate in the program, volunteer dentists simply need to be registered with the professional dental association of their home country. The Balibo House Trust also is looking for donated equipment.

“Given the cleaning that is needed to prevent periodontal gum disease issues, we are seeking 2 portable Dentsply Sirona Cavitron units. These are small and robust and do a better job than the EMS scaler. Dental therapists could provide this preventive treatment, thus freeing up the dentists,” said Bracks.

“We would also like a robust x-ray unit and laptop,” Bracks continued. “The dentist saw a couple of patients with more complicated wisdom tooth issues, but he was reluctant to extract their wisdom teeth without an x-ray.”

For example, Dr. David Bladen was on site when a mother came in with her very handicapped 11-year-old daughter, who had major anatomical deformities in addition to neurological issues. The mother carried the girl in a sling around her neck, as the child could not move on her own.

“Her teeth were a disaster and she was obviously, and had been for a long time, in severe pain. It was an impossible situation,” said Bladen. “In Melbourne, I would have gotten her into the hospital and all fixed. I did something I have never done with a patient. I cried.”

But with the help of the girl’s mother and a Salesian Brother named Elmer who also was volunteering at the clinic, Bladen treated her.

“Elmer helped me and I thought, ‘This is what I’m here for. Do something,’” Bladen said. “We pulled off what I thought was impossible. We got her out of pain. I won’t bore you with the details, but we managed to extract some of the most difficult teeth I have ever done.”

Previously, the DHSV has supported Green Gecko, an organization that performs similar outreach in Cambodia, with 2 sterilizers and various dental consumables. It also has provided Rotary International’s Donations in Kind program with necessary items.

According to the DHSV, the Balibo Dental Clinic initially will operate for about 2 weeks at a time, 4 times a year. As more volunteer dentists join the program, it will operate more frequently. It also will provide a mobile service to treat remote communities. It will deliver and operate a preventative program in the local schools as well.

For more information on donating to the program or on volunteering to be one of its dentists, email Terry Bracks at

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