Robin Hood conviction proof of 'desperation'

By Vaimoana Tapaleao

Pacific leaders say illegal dentistry case highlights poor health and poverty

Sione Vailea carried out unauthorised dental work from the back of his Mangere home. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Sione Vailea carried out unauthorised dental work from the back of his Mangere home. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In the eyes of the law, he is a criminal. But to many he is a hero, dubbed the "Robin Hood" of their struggling community.

Sione Heinave Vailea was this week sentenced to four months of home detention on charges of criminal nuisance, performing a restricted activity, forgery and possession of prescription medicines.

This year, the 54-year-old was found to have been doing dental work - including extractions, fillings, root canals and gold inlays - at his Mangere home.

Vailea had been a qualified dental therapist in Tonga for several years but was not qualified to do any dentistry work in New Zealand.

It is understood he studied at Otago University at one point, but reached only the diploma level.

At the Manukau District Court this week, the Crown prosecutor called for a sentence that reflected the severity of his offending.

Vailea was carrying out work only a registered dentist could do and photos of Vailea's home showed a less than ideal environment - poor equipment laid out on dirty newspapers.

The judge seemed to be shocked when a petition with more than 500 signatures from people supporting Vailea was presented to him.

It was that support that started a conversation about the other issues behind the case.

When people turned up at his doorstep in the middle of the night, clutching their jaws and complaining of severe tooth pain, there was only one thing Vailea wanted to do - help.

Tongan community leader and lawyer Joel Fotu, who knows Vailea, said although people knew it was wrong, it was simply a case of one of their own who had the ability and at least some knowledge to provide a service they could otherwise not afford.

People were fed up with having to queue for hours at Middlemore Hospital to get an extraction - an option only if you were quick enough to sign up to one of the 20 spots available.

"These were the people who ended up at Mr Vailea's home. One Tongan said he was so frustrated about standing in the long queue ... he decided to go home. He drank a few glasses of whisky then used a pair of pliers to pull out his aching tooth."

Vailea worked for several years at the Otara Dental Centre, where he was a dental therapist. He also helped at the practice of Pita Taouma - a respected dentist within the Pacific community. But it was his reputation in Tonga that had people swarming to him at all hours.

Mangere MP Su'a William Sio acknowledged that Vailea had been placed in a difficult situation. And in his culture, when someone asked for help, you helped.

Another Tongan community leader, Melino Maka, said that for years Vailea was considered the "Robin Hood" of their community.

He said people needed to consider wider societal issues, such as the fact that for many families living in South Auckland, going to the dentist was way beyond the bank balance.

"Maybe it's not right from a technical reason. But when you're desperate in our community, people will try the shortcut. They overlook the safety issue and go to him. The system has been created so that [desperate] people look at an alternative.

"It's not as straightforward as a lot of people think. He's breaking the law and the full force of the law should be applied, yes. But there's this other issue that needs to be considered."

State-funded dental care is available for children under 18. But little is offered to adults apart from emergency tooth extractions and painrelief for community services card-holders and they will often have to pay part of the cost themselves.

Health Ministry surveys show that Maori and Pacific people are less likely than Pakeha to visit a dentist regularly, and are more likely to have had a tooth removed in the preceding year because of decay, abscess, infection or gum disease.

Poor oral health is also linked with poverty.

Labour health spokeswoman Annette King - whose party wants to extend free dental care, starting with pregnant women - said that although she did not condone unlicensed dentistry, the Vailea case showed people were "desperate for dental treatment at an affordable cost".

NZ Dental Association head David Crum said the Government should do better in funding basic dental care for adults on low incomes.

But he also said people in the South Auckland community needed to look after their own oral health better, and take advantage of state-funded care for children.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government's priority had been to rebuild school-based and adolescent oral health services.

It was now doing a survey of older people's oral health.

Out of the dozens of people who spoke to the newspaper about Vailea, only one person had something bad to say about him. It is a reflection of what the authorities have faced.

And when a call by the health authorities was put out for Vailea's former patients to come forward, virtually no one did.

- Additional reporting: Martin Johnston

- NZ Herald

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