When the sarpanch of Sumel, a quaint, nondescript village in Bassi Tehsil of Jaipur district, Rajasthan decided to quit beedi, many villagers were inspired to follow suit. Not only did the man set an example, but he also started spreading awareness about how beedi can be a major cause of oral cancer. His efforts have significantly brought down the number of tobacco addicts in a village of uneducated farmers. But this laudable feat would have been impossible without Smile Express, a team of dentists who convinced the sarpanch about the ill-effects of beedi. The pretty English name ‘Smile Express’ might sound a tad unfamiliar in the rustic rural context. However, in the interior villages of Jaipur, this name is familiar to many. Smile Express is a non-profit foundation from the royal state of Rajasthan which provides free dental care in villagers through their mobile dental vans and portable dental units. Founded in 2017 by dentist Dr Mukesh Panwar, they are pioneering the cause of oral health care in rural Rajasthan. It is a flagship initiative by Oral Health Promotion Foundation.
How Smile Express started
Talking to Efforts For Good, Dr Mukesh Panwar shares the backstory about Smile Express. “The seed to serve the society was sown in me during my days as a student of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. Much later, when I started working as a dentist, I realised that while dental clinics are aplenty in urban areas, rural India was still deprived of accessible oral health care,” he narrates.
Panwar cites the example of his native state, “While there are seven government medical colleges in Rajasthan, there is only one dental college, where people can get affordable treatment.” He adds that people in villages have nearly zero awareness of oral health. Many are addicted to smoking or chewing tobacco. They lack any idea about basic dental hygiene – as simple as brushing twice a day. In case they encounter any dental problems, they have nowhere to go until the condition worsens severely. “The primary healthcare centres don’t provide any dental care, and very few dentists are working in rural belts,” Panwar reveals.
Free dental camps in villages
Panwar’s participation in Jagriti Yatra a few years ago propelled him to be a ‘different’ dentist. “During the Jagriti Yatra, I was deeply inspired by the free treatment model adopted by Arvind Eye Hospitals and Dr Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health. That’s when I had the idea of mobile dental facility,” he shares.
Panwar admits to receiving a lot of support from School for Social Entrepreneurs for setting up his venture Smile Express within a year.
At present, Smile Express operates two portable dental units and one mobile dental van in over 30 villages of Bassi Tehsil, Jaipur, as well as a community dental clinic. In one and a half year, their team of six expert dentists have provided free dental treatment to over 3,000 patients.
Through mike announcements, pamphlets and ‘Oral Pulse’ awareness programme, the villagers learn that there is going to be a free dental camp. The foundation also collaborates with local panchayats, ASHA workers and Anganwadi employees to spread the word about these two-day makeshift dental camps in the villages.
Oral cancer awareness and school camps
“From routine check-up to fillings, from Root Canal Treatments to oral cancer diagnosis, we do it all in these camps,” informs Panwar. They also organise regular awareness camps in schools, where students are taught the A to Z of dental hygiene.
Smile Express has exerted remarkable efforts in the domain of oral cancer prevention. “Oral cancer is on the rise, but awareness is very poor. The symptoms are not easy to detect by a layman. We have diagnosed early-stage cancer in over 60 patients, who are being treated at cancer facilities at present. That’s why oral cancer awareness features among the top of our priority list,” Panwar shares.
Challenging the age-old myths
Despite considerable progress in serving the less privileged, Smile Express founder still finds a few challenges. The outdated mindset of the villagers happens to be a major one. Their concept of oral hygiene is still shrouded by myths such as removing a bad tooth can lead to blindness. More often than not, they are reluctant to follow the dentist’s advice which counters their age-old taboos.
“We hope to expand our efforts to more beneficiaries. We want to organise at least one camp every day in a village. Hope we can overcome our funding constraints to achieve these goals as soon as possible,” expresses Panwar.
Efforts For Good lauds the unique initiative by Smile Express and hopes they foster more smiles in the days to come.