Ballarat West bringing dental care to Tonga

When dental and medical facilities need to be built in schools, the Prime Minister of Tonga calls on the Rotary Club of Ballarat West for assistance.

By Dr David Goldsmith
Rotary Club of Ballarat, West, Vic

There is an important question the Rotary Club of Ballarat West, Vic, asks when considering international projects in the Pacific Islands: Is the infrastructure and education the project provides useful, sustainable, staffed, and likely to lead to better health outcomes?

Throughout 2023, the club developed and delivered a number of successful health and education projects in Tonga that met this objective.

Mobile dental truck
In July 2023, a low mileage T2 domiciliary dental truck donated by Dental Health Services Victoria (DHSV) was delivered to the Tonga Ministry of Health to use in its school-based MaliMali (Schools Preventive Dentistry) program. After modifications to the power system for Tongan conditions, the van can now be powered by a domestic power outlet.

PICTURED: Dental Therapists Liz and Stef with Tonga driver Lio in the DHSV Tonga Dental Van.

Two school dental therapists, Liz Cobbledick and Stephanie Veal, were sponsored by DHSV and joined a group of Ballarat West Rotarians for one week to help set up and stock the van and to demonstrate its operation and maintenance. The truck was commissioned in an opening ceremony by the Minister of Health for Tonga, Dr Saia Piukalu, and Vaiola Hospital dental staff, and is now fully operational and in use in Tonga. Melbourne Donations in Kind (DiK) shipped the truck via New Zealand.

PICTURED: The new dental clinics in Tonga give dental professionals the tools they need.

Teacher education books
During their July visit, Ballarat West Rotarians also delivered 260 boxes of new early learning education books; enough to supply all the junior schools in Tonga. The books, including colouring books and activity cards, are part of a program for teachers to introduce children aged five to seven to English language literacy and numeracy.

The books, donated by the Rotary Club of Horsham, were prior evaluated and welcomed by the Tongan education system. DiK also donated two pallets of teaching aids, including paper, pencils, jotter pads, Textas, and school office kits.

New dental clinic and sick bay for Tonga High School
This project was requested by the Prime Minister of Tonga, following the club’s successful installation of dental and medical facilities at three other schools in 2022.

The project was a collaboration between the Rotary Club of Ballarat West and Tonga High School for its 75th anniversary.

Rotary helped with the surgery design and provided the dental equipment, including two dental chairs, compressors, suction, surgical instruments, cameras and more. The school itself raised $4.7 million Pa’anga (AU$3 million) to provide the building and a library, air conditioning, painting, plumbing, and some cabinetry for the dental clinic.

Specialist orthodontist Dr Deborah Sykes continued her close clinical association with Tongan dentist Dr Susitina Piukala to provide a new cosmetic dental service. Dr Sykes provided orthodontic training and a large amount of supplies and specialist equipment.

The sick bay was set up under the direction of ICU nurse and Paul Harris Fellow John Macdonald. Melbourne DiK provided the three hospital beds, a blood pressure monitor, linen, and sufficient medical dressings for many years to come.

PICTURED: King Tupou Vi (pictured) and Queen Nanasipau’u performed the opening ceremony of the new Rotary medical facility at Tonga High School.

These new Rotary facilities at Tonga High School were officially opened in July, with the opening ceremony attended by King Tupou Vi and Queen Nanasipau’u.

Ballarat Rotarians had a wonderful time in Tonga, and were fortunate the visit coincided with a number of festivals, celebrations and social events – including the King’s birthday and Hailala Mardi-Gras festival – all of which they were invited to participate in.

“All of Tonga’s main secondary schools are now serviced by dental facilities, following the club’s opening of another dental clinic and nine-bed medical centre at Tonga College in December.”

All of Tonga’s main secondary schools are now serviced by their own modern dental facilities, following the club’s opening of another dental clinic and nine-bed medical centre at Tonga College in December.

Special thanks go to the Rotary Club of Ballarat West’s newest member, Reverend Lauleti Tu’inauvai. His language, organisational skills, and cultural and spiritual support of the visit proved an invaluable asset to the team and integrated the club into the culture of Tonga.

The club’s key Tongan partner, dental engineer Sioeli Uho Manu (Joe), played a central role in the project from concept to completion, and everyone involved owes him a huge debt of gratitude.

PICTURED: The Tonga Dental Van in use in schools in September 2023 – among its first patients were the Royal grandchildren (pictured).

DiK Melbourne packed and shipped the containers and was an important source of supplies that fulfilled many of the club’s wish lists.

The club was honoured and encouraged by the support these projects received from Tongan dignitaries, with the Prime Minister, the Hon. Hu’akavameiliku, Minister of Health and Chief Dental Officer attending the opening of the facilities, along with the King, Queen, and acting Australian High Commissioner, Rachel Moore.

None of the club members who went on their first Rotary dental volunteer visit to Tonga in 1996 could have conceived of the outcomes seen today in Tongan healthcare.

Back then, the dental department was a backwater in the Vaiola Hospital, providing mostly pain relief with non-functioning equipment, poor infection control, and no functioning school preventive dentistry program.

Today, Tonga is considered a world leader in public dental healthcare provision, thanks in no small part to the Rotary Club of Ballarat West’s incredible efforts.

For more information on Rotary Pacific Island dental projects please contact Dr David Goldsmith via dgballarat@hotmail.com

MAIN PICTURE: The Dental Clinic and Medical and Evacuation Centre, equipped by Rotary and DiK, were opened by HSH Prince Tungi and HE Rachel Moore, the Australian High Commissioner for Tonga on December 14, 2023.