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Somali Immigrants Learn About Western Dental Health

As more immigrants arrive in Columbus, their diets change to include more processed food and more sugar. For a group of Somalis, the dietary changes create a need to change oral hygiene and dental care. They get help from several health and social service organziations.

At the Community Refugee and Immigration Service Center, fourth-year Ohio State University dental student, Kim Brown, speaks through an interpreter to a Somali immigrant. Brown's looking for signs of tooth decay and gum disease.

Brown examines one of many Somali immigrants who suffer from a variety of untreated dental problems. She works under OSU Department of Dentistry program director Homa Amini.

"They're a group who comes here and their diet has been healthy in their country, but they come here and they get exposed to the American diet, and the sugar. So we try to educate them with their children. So at least they have a better oral health," Amini said.

Word of Amini's outreach program was first spread through the Columbus Literacy Council. It offers basic oral health skills, screenings and referrals by dental hygienists and students.

Beth Noel is a dental hygienist at Children's Hospital and teaches oral health literacy to immigrants.

Noel talks to them about which foods and drinks are good and bad for their teeth. She shows them how to brush and floss properly. But for many, this is the first time they've been exposed to a toothbrush or dental floss. Noel said teaching them preventive oral care is a big part of this program.

"A lot of them have never been to a dentist before in their life. So this is just a great, unique opportunity to educate them about the resources that are there, here in the United State for them as far as dental care. And just to educate them about how to take care of their teeth on a daily basis," Noel said.

Amini said most everyone attending the class reacts positively to Western way of oral hygiene. But Amini said some remain skeptical.

"Talking to the older generation, many of them have not used a toothbrush before. They say that they use this stick that is made up of wood from a tree. And that's what they've been used to in order to clean their teeth. So it's been kind of challenging," Amini said.

After looking at the Somali man's teeth, he listens closely to Brown's recommendations.

Amini said the dental program has helped 350 immigrants get reasonably affordable dental care. The Columbus Health Department and the East Central Health Center offer interpreter services.