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18 February 2020
Award winning dental care programme aims to help more children with special needs

Using cost effective threaded plumbing pipes to create a larger, strong grip handle is one of the techniques applied to help children with challenges when brushing their teeth.

(Published - 18 February 2020}

An old tennis ball or bicycle handles can help children with special needs take care of their teeth. The ball can create an enlarged, yet flexible grip for a child with poor upper arm coordination and strength, while the bicycle handles creates a strong grip on toothbrushes. These are some of the innovative ideas used by an award winning toothbrushing programme which helps children with special needs ensure effective dental health care and maintenance.

This year, The Sparkle Brush programme - an internationally recognised collaborative community engagement programme between the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) - is hoping to expand to more schools serving children with physical and psychological challenges such as cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome and other learning challenges.

“In the spirit of UWC’s 60th year of existence, we are continuing our efforts to bring optimum dental care to children with special needs by using easily accessible materials to adapt toothbrushes for special needs learners based on their specific challenges,” says senior UWC lecturer, Dr Magandhree Naidoo, who heads up the project along with other academics from UWC and UKZN.

This project has been implemented in three schools in the Western Cape - Mitchell's Plain, Diep River and Woodstock. The programme reinforces a commitment to all-around oral health. It is a supervised brushing programme which includes educating learners and staff. The programme includes a topical fluoride application as well as teaching hand-washing methods. “We aim to give these children a better chance at improving and maintaining the best oral health they can achieve for themselves with an all-inclusive approach to health care. We also provide dietary advice and educational talks on risk factors such as smoking. This all forms part of the free six-monthly check-ups we provide,” says Dr Naidoo.


In August last year, the project’s efforts paid off when it became the recipient of the International Social Responsibility Award in Brisbane, Australia.

“We are pleased with the success of the project, which was started based on the 2005 statistics from the National Maternal and Child Oral Health Resource Center which identified dental care as one of the leading unmet health care needs among the special needs population.

“We started the project based on the evident disparities in access to dental health care for children with special needs. To add to this global challenge, our oral health care services are unaffordable or difficult to access.

“With this project we work with special needs teachers, teaching assistants and nurses by educating them on how to maintain this programme,” says Dr Naidoo.

So far the project has been able to reach 551 special needs learners, 105 educators, 56 teaching assistants, 45 nurses and 8 therapists in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

The programme has gone from strength to strength: since 2018 it culminated in an oral health programme that is a collaborative community engagement initiative between The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and The University of Western Cape (UWC).

“Working with schools is an important and effective avenue for providing a foundation for good oral hygiene skills and healthy living patterns.

“We managed to conduct oral health workshops for nurses, teachers and teaching assistants on concepts of oral and general health care. Along with creating a storybook for the purpose of implementing the programme with the learners, a referral system with local health services is also an important component of this programme.

“The project still has its challenges, such as timeframes, transportation, funding needs and access to the special needs schools.” says Dr Naidoo.