Dentaid: Third World charity steps in to help Britain's dental crisis

News comes as NHS dentists across the country warn that the system is unfit for purpose

After weeks of agony with a raging toothache, Claire Skipper made a desperate bid to stop the pain once and for all.

At 3am, she downed several shots of whisky, went into the garden shed and began yanking at her rotten molar with a pair of pliers.

Her attempt at amateur dentistry was, unsurprisingly, a failure. The tooth snapped in half and Claire, 29, was left writhing in even more agony.

Such is the difficulty for people in accessing and affording an NHS dentist in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

But now a charity, Dentaid, which cares for people’s teeth across the developing world, has come to the rescue of low-income families, homeless people, migrants and others in the town who are missing out on dental services.

It is working with local dentists, who are providing their services for free, to offer its first out-of-hours “pay if you can” emergency scheme in the UK, with the support of a community food project.

It comes as NHS dentists across the country warned this week that the system is unfit for purpose and that dental health is falling to third-world levels in parts of England.

The Independent found a steady flow of patients using the out-of-hours service at the Dewsbury Dental Centre in Halifax Road, which first opened in the 1920s.

“It’s very hard to get a dentist in Dewsbury,” says Jack Swallow, an 81-year-old grandfather of seven, who has just had a filling. “I’m just grateful that they have seen to me tonight.

“I managed to see a dentist some time ago to have a cap on one of my teeth and was told afterwards that it would cost £220. I couldn’t pay it with my pension and had to get help from my family.”

Other patients having fillings include Fatima Sidat, 41, who says she was crossed off the register at her NHS surgery after being a patient for 10 years. “I’ve been trying to find a new dentist for two years,” she says. “People shouldn’t have to do this, but you can’t live with the pain and you have to eat. It’s fantastic that these dentists are giving up their time like this.”

Upstairs are two brothers, Hader and Ale Maneeb, aged 13 and 11, who are taking turns to have teeth extracted. The boys, who recently arrived in Dewsbury from Italy, are with their father Maliq and younger brother Umar.

“It’s really good,” says Hader as he leaves the surgery, his cheeks flushed red after the extraction. “Now, I’m not in any pain at all.”

Previous patients have included a woman with only one tooth who had not seen a dentist for 28 years and man whose face was swollen with an abscess. A group of Hungarian patients even arrived with their own translator.

“I’d like to think all dentists joined the profession because they want to help people,” says Nick O’Donovan, who owns the surgery. 

“This is one way that we can give something back. Of course, the best thing for people to do is to have regular check-ups and good oral health, but there are people who are falling through the net for all sorts of reasons.”

A report by Healthwatch Kirklees, the local authority area that includes Dewsbury, found in 2014 that “significant numbers” of people were struggling to see an NHS dentist and that dental contracts were “inflexible” and “based on historical demand”.

The out-of-hours scheme was the idea of staff at the Real Junk Food Project in Dewsbury, a community initiative which supplies meals to those in need. 

Paul Burr from the project contacted Dentaid after he realised visitors were not able to enjoy their meals because of their painful teeth. Dentaid is more commonly seen in African countries where there is only one dentist for a quarter of a million people and where people often turn to witch doctors for help. In the UK, there is around one dentist to 3,000 people.

Ms Skipper is now fully recovered from her attempt at amateur dentistry. “That pain was indescribable,” she says. “I’d tried to get an NHS dentist, but nowhere was taking any new patients. Sometimes, I don’t have enough money for the electricity meter, so I can’t afford private care.

“No one in Britain in 2015 should have to resort to pulling their own teeth.”