It's been painful, but they're smiling in Wairoa where more than 300 people have lined up for free dental treatment being provided by a local iwi trust.

The demand, similar to unrelated different Free Dental Community Care Day in Napier last month, classically highlights how high cost is shutting huge numbers out of regular care.

A report for the Hawke's Bay District Health Board last year highlighted 65 per cent of all people over 18 in Hawke's Bay - 84 per cent of Maori adults and 59 per cent of non-Maori - had never been to a dentist other than for urgent treatment.

It compared with a national average of 55 per cent, itself one of the worst rates internationally.


Ngati Pahauwera Development Trust chairman Toro Waaka yesterday slammed the circumstances which have led the trust providing the service which started on Monday and ends next Friday.

"I think that the high cost of dental care and the lack of a level playing field across the population is a disgrace," he said. "Even people on medium income streams are frightened more of the price than the pain."

The trust, with offices in Wairoa and Napier and representing members of a widely-spread Northern Hawke's Bay iwi, identified an even more acute need for its community and organised a free fortnight of treatment for iwi members and anyone else in its area.

Utilising the contacts of independent director and Auckland businessman Michael Chamberlain, a mobile clinic with volunteer dentists and hygienists from Auckland has been provided by Abano Healthcare.

Mainfreight became a major sponsor; transporting the clinic to Wairoa, where the bulk of iwi members live and central to the outlying settlements of Waikari, Kotemaori, Putere, Raupunga, Mohaka and Waihua.

With otherwise only one dentist in town, those who contemplated dental treatment often had to go to Napier or Gisborne, and sometimes hospital, said Mr Waaka and trust office manager Marie Moses.

Treatment this week included extractions and tooth-capping, in addition to scaling a major focus on education, and the benefits outweigh the discomfort.

Ms Moses, who was stunned by the response but not surprised, said: "Can you blame them? It [dental care] costs so much. A lot of people here don't have a lot of money, so it's either extraction, or food on the table.

"I've seen the reactions [this week]," she said.

"They said it was painful ... but they went away happy."

Dentists on the job estimated the treatment to 16 patients on opening day on Monday would have otherwise cost at least $3500, she said.

Fortunately for Rarua Green and her two daughters the treatment couldn't have come at a better time. "It is amazing for Wairoa and a fantastic opportunity for my family to learn about proper dental care," she said.

Codee Green and Geemas Green had appointments yesterday morning and were both out within an hour. The treatment Miss Green received left her in no pain and saved her $1500.

"My daughter came home after having two fillings and was able to eat lunch, I was shocked," said Mrs Green.

All three commended the free dental care and have said it is already making an impact on their teeth care.

"I learned some awesome information, which has already made a difference for my family," said Mrs Green.

Patient Liz Isaac-Biddle also complimented the free dental care and left the clinic with a big smile saying "that was great".

By Tuesday night more than 300 people had arrived or contacted the trust, and people were being told there were already too many patients for everyone to be treated by the time the dentists leave town at the end of next week.

The service meets a promise made by the trust board at its annual meeting last year, and Mr Waaka said the excess demand meant some thought was already being given to bringing the clinic back.

"We will," he said, "because there a lot of people out there who need it, but can't afford it. We see the way to do it is try to get sponsorships.

"One of the objectives is to re-introduce people to dental hygiene, and people taking a bit more responsibility themselves. So, we're not taking business away [from the town's dentist]. We are probably increasing it."

In Napier last month, people queued for hours for a Saturday of free treatment at Dental on Raffles, where dentist Gary Winter said a team of staff, assisted by a Hastings dentist, treated 103 people during the day, extracted 105 teeth and provided 34 fillings. Some people had as many as seven teeth removed.