BAGABAG ISLAND, Papua New Guinea — When Muklong Blau learned dental workers had arrived in her village, it sparked hope that she might rid herself of pain she’d lived with for years. Five months pregnant, Blau had enough to be concerned about without having to deal with a bad molar. One of her wisdom teeth had grown in horizontally, stabbing her cheek, which then caused infection in her gums. When she approached the dental workers— who were part of a YWAM team that sailed to Bagabag aboard the m/v PACIFIC LINK—she meekly asked, “Can you help me?”
Cases such as Blau’s are all too common in PNG, especially in rural communities where eighty-five percent of the population resides, according to the United Nations Development Programme. There are fewer than 100 dentists in this nation of 7.5 million people. Of those, most live in urban areas. Mary Grable, one of the Bagabag dental team, noted that illnesses can multiply to the point of becoming fatal when maladjusted wisdom teeth are not removed promptly.
“I’ve seen people die from oral infections; their throat closes up, the infection could go up into their eye, it can go into their brain. Once it’s in the bloodstream, it can go anywhere in the body that’s vulnerable,” said Grable, a dental hygienist from California.
Even when dental maladies are not deadly for people here, they can be the source of unceasing pain. In Western nations, teenagers customarily have their wisdom teeth removed to alleviate overcrowding in the mouth. In contrast, it is rare to meet a Papua New Guinean who has had those teeth removed.
“When food gets trapped back by the wisdom tooth, it can become infected very easily,” Grable said. Conditions such as Blau’s can also be magnified during pregnancy.
“Sometimes during a pregnancy, it’s common to have what they call ‘pregnancy gingivitis’ because your hormone system is completely changed,” Grable said. “Things tend to get more inflamed and the mouth tends to bleed more.” After potentially having lived with her condition for as long as ten years, Blau experienced pain relief after ten minutes from the work performed by dental volunteers.
“We were able to extract that tooth and give her antibiotics,” Grable said.
“You could see she was so happy.”