YEREVAN, Armenia – The American University of Armenia (AUA) School of Public Health hosted a symposium, titled “Armenian Children’s Oral Health and Dental Program.” The two-day event, which was sponsored by the Bay Area Friends of Armenia (BAFA), took place on November 2-3 and is part of a much larger oral health education project initiated by BAFA and a US-based AUA supporter Dr. Jack Koumjian.
While on a visit to a village in Armenia in 2013 where Dr. Koumjian provided preventive oral care to residents there, he recognized the need to teach prevention as the key to maintaining good, lifelong oral health. From that experience, Dr. Koumjian, who is a Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford University Medical School and the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry, decided that educating Armenian healthcare providers on a national scale through seminars and other forms of advocacy was an essential first step.
The symposium in November 2015, where attendees could earn seven continuous professional development credits provided by the Armenian Ministry of Health, was the second in the campaign to advocate for oral health. The first seminar held on the subject took place in October 2014. This year, the symposium attracted close to 160 health professionals from different fields and organizations including dentists, pediatricians, family physicians, nurses, students of dental, nursing, and public health programs, professors from the medical university, and officials from health agencies and non-governmental organizations.
“There’s no way that this can be addressed by volunteers. It’s going to need much more manpower in order to make an impact. It’s something preventable and the one person who knows best about how such a campaign can be organized is Dr. Francisco Ramos-Gomez,” Dr. Koumjian said.
Dr. Ramos-Gomez took his second trip to Armenia to take part in the symposium and to join Dr. Koumjian’s effort in the area of pediatric and perinatal oral health, which is the more focused goal of the project.
“When you’re pregnant, you develop a lot of dental diseases that you pass very early on to your babies. We want to intervene and have successful intervention programs that can prevent disease from the mother to her babies so they can go through life with healthy teeth,” Dr. Ramos-Gomez, who is a professor in the Division of Pediatric Dentistry and the Director for the Pediatric Dentistry Preceptorship Program at the UCLA School of Dentistry, said.
Dr. Ramos-Gomez is well-versed in issues facing underserved populations, both in the US and globally, in the areas of early childhood caries (ECC) prevention, oral disease risk assessment, and community health. Dr. Koumjian, who values Dr. Ramos-Gomez’s extensive international experience in Latin American countries and in India, hopes to make a substantial impact on the Armenian scene with Dr. Ramos-Gomez’s contribution.
“We’re here in Armenia to promote a worldwide policy of focusing on the most vulnerable populations of pregnant women and infants for good oral health. It takes small steps, but everyone has to acknowledge and to understand what steps they need to take because it can be overwhelming for one person to take on. To make this change happen, it has to be a village and the village with its specialties and know-how. This is what we want to bring to Armenia,” said Dr. Ramos-Gomez, who, most recently, had an appearance before the Indian and Guatemalan parliaments and impressed upon lawmakers there the importance of dental policy changes to improve oral health in their respective countries.
“We have to talk to the Minister of Health, the Minister of Education, and other policy makers. We need to create a board or an ad hoc committee to brainstorm how to reach our goals and then draw a plan. It’s a big vision, but it can be done,” Dr. Koumjian agreed and admitted that he is already seeking additional funding for the project. He also said that the project, which organizers hope will show results in three to five years, will also include a media campaign using social media, and such strategies as the distribution of free toothbrushes and toothpaste to promote oral health.
Dr. Francois Antounian, board member of BAFA, added, “The younger generation is more open to the new world. Armenia is part of the new world. They are receptive and enthusiastic and that’s what encouraged us to come back. A few older people are still under the idea that what we had during the Soviet era was fine and all that is needed now is money. The concept of prevention doesn’t enter here.” Dr. Antounian insists that, even in the US, dental care has evolved and is delivered differently than the way it was in the not too-distant past. “We don’t wish for anything less for Armenian children,” he concluded, highlighting his conviction that “AUA School of Public Health is the proper place to start changing policy in Armenia.”
“The focus on oral health among pregnant women and very young children is a new development in Armenia. Dr. Ramos-Gomez brings new knowledge that is not widespread yet.
That’s why it’s going to take some time,” AUA School of Public Health Dean Varduhi Petrosyan cautioned.
“Dental disease is a simple, infectious disease and this is preventable for a very low cost that has a huge impact,” Dr. Antounian said. Changes at the national level in Armenia require “an interdisciplinary, multi-pronged approach. Everybody has to understand what it is. Dentists, dental students, nurses, OBGYNs, general pediatricians, and medical doctors. They each do their own specialties, but they understand that they are inter-dependent. What I do affects what you do and all of us affect the health of the population,” Dr. Antounian said.
From left to right, AUA SPH Dean Varduhi Petrosyan, Dr. Francisco Ramos-Gomez, Dr. Jack Koumjian, Dr. Francois Antounian, and AUA Vice President of Operations Mr. Ashot Ghazaryan
Dr. Antounian, left, and Dr. Koumjian, lower right, along with other health professionals in the audience, listening to Dr. Ramos-Gomez