18 May 2022

Putting a healthy smile on the dial of Fiji’s children

People & Culture

Putting a healthy smile on the dial of children from Fiji is what motivates paediatric dentist and former Manaaki scholar Jason Nath, but he has ambitious plans to raise the bar on dental care for all young people in the South Pacific region.

“I love working with children, particularly those living with disabilities and special healthcare needs who require more inclusive oral health policies and programmes.”

He spent the early years of his career working as a hospital dentist and teaching at the Fiji National University’s School of Dentistry and Oral Health but was ambitious to accomplish much more and knew he would have to study overseas to achieve his goals.

He travelled first to Portugal to enrol in a Master’s in Public Health and then to the University of Otago’s Faculty of Dentistry to undertake his Postgraduate Clinical Doctoral Degree in Paediatric Dentistry.

As a third generation Fijian of Indian descent, he describes his international education experience as “life-changing, academically and culturally fulfilling”.

But Jason says he could never have afforded to study in New Zealand without the support of a Manaaki New Zealand Scholarship, funded through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The programme sets out to build future leaders in developing countries by supporting students to upskill here.

Advocating for better oral health outcomes

Improving the oral health of young people drives Jason’s clinical and research work and he knows that implementing a preventative approach to tooth decay is key to achieving sustainable outcomes.

“The mindset in the Pacific is that people mostly don’t come to the hospital clinics for dental care, they wait for pain or symptoms before seeking help,” he says. “But we need to advocate strongly for prevention which is more cost-effective and acceptable.”

Arriving at the University of Otago in 2019, Jason embarked on his thesis researching the remineralisation potential of selected peptides (one of the building blocks of protein) in preventing tooth decay.

“Dental decay is prevalent, especially among children, but it is reversible in its early stages. The mainstay of prevention has been fluoride, but we proved that the peptides do have remineralisation potential. Investigation is now under way to learn how it performs alongside fluoride.”

“I think it has huge potential for the future. The dream would be that we have the next generation of children growing up without fillings in their mouths.”

Jason says this kind of research would not have been possible in Fiji. “I was very grateful for the experience at Otago. It was an environment that was both supportive and collaborative. It opened up networking opportunities for me. And those networks still support me today.”

Jason also cared for patients at the faculty’s clinical facilities and theatre suites and provided on-call dental services for emergency patients after-hours at Dunedin Hospital, building close bonds with some of his young patients, especially those with special needs.

International education builds skills and confidence

After his graduation in December, Jason returned to FNU School of Dentistry with additional skills and new-found confidence. “I think that gaining a formal specialist qualification has given me a voice to continue to advocate for children’s oral health through dental education.”

He wants to establish preventative oral health programmes in schools and help improve the curriculum being taught to dental students in the region, integrating recent innovations and research evidence.

It’s something he has been thinking about for many years. “Hopefully now we’ll get this done.”

“I’ve expanded my knowledge, upskilled, and I think I have become more confident as an academic, and as a person. I’ve got my international education and training to thank for that.”

Manaaki scholar gives back to the community

Jason is certainly fulfilling the brief of the Manaaki Scholarship to give back to his community. He is maintaining his clinical hours, teaching the next generation of dental students, volunteering his services at an NGO-run paediatric cardiac care hospital, and mentoring students wanting follow in his footsteps by studying overseas.

“International education is very important to Fiji as a developing country,” he says. “I thought it would be valuable to be able to guide students who would benefit from international scholarships in meeting their professional goals, while building capacity in the region.”

At heart, though, he is an academic and he hopes that in the coming years he can raise the research profile of the Pacific region and build a solid database which will help to secure the funding for much-needed oral healthcare programmes.

“My message is that there is no general health without oral health. It’s not going to be easy, but we need to start somewhere to get a voice for children and for the profession.”

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