Reaching the most vulnerable in Mannar

Abarna Suthanthiraraj, Palmera
April 22, 2022

Australian skilled volunteers and donors working together with NGOs and the Australian Embassy, to help vulnerable communities access oral hygiene services.

Palmera has an active skilled base of volunteers and donors from the Australian community and over the years has drawn on these individuals to assist as needs become identified in the communities. In early 2017 Palmera noticed through its programs and in consultation with the community, a growing gap around access to oral hygiene education and services for many children and families in the Mannar region. Once this gap was identified and validated through government partners in Sri Lanka, Palmera approached donors in Australia including an Australian based dental company, MyDental Team, as well as the Australian Embassy to kick start a mobile dental health service. This program ran with the engagement of the Regional Department of Health Services of Mannar district to ensure integration into the regional public health response from 2018-2020 and post 2020 it was handed over to the Regional Department of Health Services to manage on their own.

The main purpose of the service from 2018-2020 was to establish the mobile clinic to better serve the integrated health outcomes of the district, build capability and ownership within the relevant Government department(s) to deliver effective oral health services to vulnerable communities, with a focus on children, in the rural areas of Mannar District. The clinic had a specific focus on children and pregnant women and delivered by local NGOS in close collaboration with Educational and Health Services of target communities in the Mannar district and relevant Ministry of Health office’s to deliver services at school and maternal clinics.

When the clinic was fully operational in 2019, it reached 5589 individuals in Mannar district which equates to almost 9% of the total population (excluding the population of Mannar town) in the district. Following the project’s handover to the Regional Department of Health Services of Mannar district, and despite the ongoing 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, the service reached 2114 individuals across 12 schools, 4 preschools and 81 antenatal clinics. The clinic seeks to reach 10,000 people a year once it is safe to travel freely.

The Australian Embassy grant enabled the mobile clinic to not only deliver an essential service to many children and pregnant women in the community but importantly incorporate educational messaging around basic oral hygiene and help prevent more chronic conditions. The funding paid for the stories, images, videos and educational material that was tailored to the community to enable a creative and engaging way to reach those in the rural areas of Mannar. As noted by a school teacher, “earlier, children were telling dental pain as a reason for not attending to school but now they are not telling that anymore. So, we should be thankful for the Mobile Dental Service”.

In early 2020 just before Australia went into its first COVID lockdown, a group of Australian volunteers and donors visited Sri Lanka to experience Palmera’s innovative livelihood program first-hand. During this time the team also attended a local school, where the mobile dental clinic was visiting to raise awareness with children on oral hygiene and provide much needed services to the children and their families who also attended the clinic. During this visit it was uplifting for the team to see so many children engaged in the educational messaging and hearing stories from the families on how much the mobile dental clinic has helped with pain, discomfort and basic oral hygiene needs. Kavitha Raj an Australian Sri Lankan who attended this field visit stated that she was “truly amazed at the standard of facilities in the mobile clinic and the commitment from the dental clinicians to reach children in these rural areas - something most of us in Australia take for granted”.

This mobile dental clinic, initiated by Palmera with support fromAustralian donors and the Australian Embassy is a perfect example of how public health services can be lifted within a country through the supportive relationships that has been fostered between individual Australians, government partners (in Australia and in Sri Lanka) and Australian based and local NGOs to develop a sustainable program that benefits the rural communities across Mannar achieve important health outcomes.