Strengthening Oral Health Care Systems in Africa: New Agreement Between HSDM and the WHO Will Address Critical Needs

June 9, 2021
map of Africa

Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) and the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) have teamed up to address critical oral health challenges in the African region, worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project aims to build the capacity of primary care workers in oral health promotion, and oral disease prevention and control, to better address the unmet demand for oral health services and strengthen oral health care systems. The team will develop an online oral health training program that will leverage digital technologies and mHealth initiatives for workforce development. HSDM was selected to support the project based on extensive faculty expertise and experience in global workforce development, including in the African region, with existing partnerships in Rwanda. Additional work in this area also includes HSDM’s leadership in the design of the Global Health Starter Kit, an online, open access curriculum now in use in 30 countries.

The first phase of the project will involve the creation and implementation of a pilot training program focused on community health workers in Angola, Kenya, Liberia and Senegal, with a goal to scale to remaining WHO AFRO member states and expand training for additional primary care workers in the future.

“These collaborative efforts are among the first to translate exciting progress in policy and research into practice through responsive workforce capacity building,” said project lead Dr. Brittany Seymour, associate professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology (OHPE) and HSDM global health discipline director.

Earlier this year, recognizing the global oral disease epidemic and scarcity of dental human and financial resources available, a groundbreaking WHO resolution placed oral health front and center into the global health and development agenda. This call to action emphasized improving oral health as part of universal health coverage and non-communicable disease prevention and control efforts.

Team photo of Barrow, Hackley and Seymour
HSDM faculty members Jane Barrow, Donna Hackley, and Brittany Seymour
Dr. Donna Hackley, instructor in OHPE, will also serve on the project. Dr. Hackley has played a significant role in the Human Resources for Health Rwanda, Dentistry program since 2013, where she led the implementation and accreditation of the first dental school in Rwanda.

“We value community-based collaboration and input; local insight and expertise will be essential to the success of this project,” said Hackley.

Jane Barrow, Associate Dean for Global and Community Health and Executive Director for HSDM’s Initiative to Integrate Oral Health and Medicine, will work closely with the project team. Barrow was initially involved in the 2011 United Nations Summit on NCDs oral health side session, as well as the 2019 UN Summit on Universal Health Care—efforts that drew attention to growing global oral health concerns.

“Our new collaboration with the WHO Regional Office for Africa builds from the 2011 UN Political Declaration on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, which named oral diseases as a major global problem,” Barrow said.  “We will work to align this training program with goals and policies emphasized at the UHC Summit oral health meeting, which include strengthening efforts to address oral health as part of universal health coverage and primary care.”

The workforce training project was initiated within the WHO Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, Oral Health Programme. The HSDM team will work directly with Dr. Yuka Makino, World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Officer for Oral Health at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, and author of Ending childhood dental caries: WHO implementation manual, 2019.

“I am honored and grateful to be a part of this exciting effort,” said Seymour. “It really is an opportunity to turn vision into reality, to build on the incredible momentum from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Summits. I have high hopes for what we can achieve together for oral health in Africa moving ahead.”

Link to World Health Organization announcement