For nearly 40 years Dr Gary Lawrence has been looking after the dental needs of people from Kāpiti.

But he's also been a key part of an important aid programme treating the people of Tavenui Island, which is the third largest island in Fiji.

Lawrence, who was a finalist for the New Zealand Dental Association Public Service Award for his work on the island, has been to the island five times for the Rotary Volunteer Dental Aid Project.

The team, comprising four dentists from New Zealand, take along two portable dental units and two portable dental chairs, and work as a tag-team treating as many people as possible during their time on the island.

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"One acts as the dental assistant and one acts as the dentist, and then we just swap over," said Lawrence who has been the team leader for the past three trips.

A key focus is on children in their last two years of primary school as well as a lot of emphasis on preventative care.

Dr Gary Lawrence working in Fiji.
Dr Gary Lawrence working in Fiji.

The team performed a staggering 748 examinations with 645 restorations, 454 fissure sealants and 253 extractions in two weeks on their last visit.

Dental decay was a prominent issue especially because of access to cheap sugary food and drinks.

"The biggest change we've seen in the recent trip, compared to the one a few years ago, was the amount of marketing going on by Coca Cola.

"It's now around all of the shops.

"Villages will often have a little shop and there are big marketing placards up outside while the refrigeration inside is absolutely provided for.

"One shop there must have been about 10m of vertical chillers all stocked with fizzy drinks.

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"We're up against that."

While schools and the Government were active on various health-focused fronts, the team were seeing some children whose teeth have "virtually rotted out".

"These are 8 year olds with their first molars and we're having to extract these permanent teeth."

The island only had one government-salaried resident dentist to service about 18,000 locals.

"There's no way he can sort it out which is quite disheartening in a way."

Despite the challenges, helping out brought a lot of satisfaction.

"We don't feel we can fulfil their real needs but we can at least get them out of pain and can do quite a bit of preventative work.

"We're giving back to a group of people who are certainly in need of it."

Another alarming issue encountered was a very high rate of young people affected by rheumatic fever.

The fever features a bacterial infection in the throat which can travel and affect the heart valves.

"It's really sad but easily treatable with antibiotics.

"Eighteen out of 113 students at one school had encountered this life-threatening disease.

"Ready access to antibiotics in the community could drastically reduce the numbers affected.

"I'm going to have to communicate with the doctors to see if it's possible for their nursing staff to get antibiotics out into the villages."

The team had received generous sponsorship for the aid programme from the Margaret Blackwell Trust, the Chester Bellis Memorial Trust, as well as the Rotary Clubs of Kāpiti, Hutt Valley, Remuera, Rotary District 9940 [lower half of North Island] and the Rotary Club of Boronia in Australia.