NPO brings smiles to the Philippines

by Angela Jeffs

Yokohama-based dental practitioner Dr. Kimio Miyake defines the turning point in his professional and personal life as taking place in the Philippines in 1983.” I was dining at a terrace restaurant above the sea, and there were naked children on the rocks below diving for coins thrown by visitors. One boy even had a baby tied to his back. I suppose the tourists thought they were being kind. But it struck me forcibly that there had to be better ways to help.”

The result? The Kanagawa Alliance of Dental Volunteers Overseas, of which Miyake is president, currently in its 25th year of operation.

Fellow founder and activist Dr. Munehiro Yamamoto, explains that KADVO’s work, in fact, dates back 28 years, to when Kanagawa Dental University wanted to study the differences between Japanese and global standards of care.

Yamamoto has volunteered his services on Cebu island every year since KADVO began work.

“We were there in February, a group of 70 dentists, dental assistants and helpers, working alongside local professionals and volunteers — 200 in all of us — in an elementary school.”

KADVO chose to work on Cebu because few people could afford dental care.

Although a major tourist destination, with pristine beaches and associated resort developments, the local population remains deprived, with few benefits filtering through.

“The first time we visited, we were a group of 17, mostly KDU alumni,” Yamamoto recalls. “We had to begin work slowly, build trust and relationships. We thought about going to other islands, but with tons of equipment, the logistics were against us.” Later, Philippine Airlines came to the rescue, offering extremely lenient overweight allowances — a practice that continues.

Many of the 167 other islands in Cebu Province have small clinics already; there are also clashes of protocol and culture. So KADVO — which became an official NPO three years ago — chooses to stay on Cebu, where its resources are best employed.”

We’re very careful to abide by the law and local customs. If things became untenable for any reason, we know we’d be asked to discontinue the missions. Our greatest ally is the Cebu Dental Society.”

A CDS member, who was already doing volunteer work among those in greatest need when KADVO showed interest, took Yamamoto with him on one of his very first trips.

“Dr. Mendoza showed me the barrio where he grew up — my own defining moment. So that was where we staged our first mission. In the beginning, it was chaos. Now, prior to our arrival, barrio leaders and local dentists set up equipment and organize registration and basic procedures so that we can get down to work and treat as many patients as possible.”

Miyake: “In February, we were able to treat 1,500 patients in 48 hours. Yes, we pulled a lot of teeth. Also cleaned, scaled and filled from morning until night. . . .

“This may be the only time that the poorest of the poor get professional dental care for free. We go to a different school or community center every year, to give different villages a chance. But as things stand economically, there’s little hope of followup.” A s a result, KADVO’s focus has been changing — the emphasis increasingly on preventive medicine through education, using flash cards and story-telling, providing toothbrushes and showing children especially how to use them.

“It may be the only toothbrushes they ever receive in their lives, so they’re very proud and take care of them,” Yamamoto, who has a practice in Yokohama, explains.

Also, KADVO is now taking along two dental technicians, so that people without teeth can have dentures fitted.”

They’re making teeth all day long,” explains Miyake, whose own professional practice is in Ishikawacho. “It’s an expensive business, and we’re very grateful to all those individuals and organizations that make such a service possible. The Japanese government helped in the past, but no longer.”

There is also the problem of operating on cleft palates, which in the Philippines requires a double license.

Miyake: “Here in Japan, dentists who choose to do such work are specially trained. On Cebu, there’s a clinic where children can receive treatment from the international organization Smile. Unfortunately, there’s no provision for after-care and treatment, so if something goes wrong, there’s no way to get help.”

Yamamoto: “We’re doing things differently, by bringing the most severe cases to Japan. It’s expensive — ¥5-6 million per child, as they have to stay two weeks and need at least one family member to accompany them, but it’s better for their long-term prospects.”

Still, helping a child in this manner can backfire. One child who had a cleft palate repaired was bullied even more when he returned to school. Maybe the other children didn’t like him being picked out for special treatment, Yamamoto ponders. “We try to be sensitive but. . .”

KADVO is very thorough, he and his colleague agree. All patients are interviewed before treatment and checked afterward. All staff are trained to avoid contracting Hepatitis B and HIV.

More recently, KADVO moved into a four-year program called KADVO Heart Parents, sponsoring local orphans to insure them basic schooling. Both Miyake and Yamamoto sponsor two children, a boy and a girl each, and have photos of smiling faces tucked into their wallets.

“We’ll consider further education when the time is appropriate,” Yamamoto says. “We have 120 children in the program to date. When we get together, it’s quite a party.”

Yamamoto devotes most of his annual leave to KADVO. He looks forward to going to Cebu annually because, while strenuous work, the reward is “beyond words.” He and Miyake also have to accept that while they treat thousands, there are thousands more who need help and who have to wait or may never get the opportunity of free treatment.

The biggest change over the years, Yamamoto believes, is in the island’s dental circles, which offer the most professional services in all the Philippines. “CDS is very hands-on, as are we.”

Both Yamamoto and Miyake had dentists in the family. Miyake’s six brothers and sisters as well all followed their father into the profession. His two sons are dentists, as is a daughter-in-law. He can count 19 relatives, including nieces and nephews, working in dentistry. Which helps make for a lot of well-cared-for teeth, both in Japan and overseas.

Annual KADVO BBQ in support of KADVO Heart Parents on Sunday, Aug. 24. For details of this and all KADVO activities, see Web site: www.kadvo.com