“Clean your teeth for 10 rupees, all forms of dental treatment available here!” exclaims an Urdu signboard next to a roadside ‘dentist’ on a footpath near Fawwara Chowk in Rawalpindi.
Welcome to Hakeem Sufi’s dental practice, where roadside cleaning costs around Rs15, fillings cost between Rs80 and Rs150, and fake teeth range from Rs250 to Rs400, all prices negotiable.
“For 20 years, I have provided every kind of service except extraction at cheaper rates, and during this era of inflation, my services are still free for the poorest people,” said Hakeem Sufi, whose real name is Muhammad Ikram.
The footpaths along the busy Saddar Road are hub of at least a dozen quack dentists, who have spent years fiddling with poor people’s teeth, sometimes with disastrous ends.
The majority of these quacks claim to have learnt expertise in dentistry from their parents. “I am just like a professional dentist, and after death of my father, I established my own setup which is working smoothly,” said Abdul Malik, a quack with ten years on the job.
While justifying the reasons behind the risky practice, Malik said that professional doctors charge thousands of rupees for providing the same treatment. He claimed that roadside dentists use the same pharmaceutical supplies as real dentists and the only difference is that quacks don’t work in “brick buildings”.
“If we don’t provide our cheap services to the poor people, where will they go for treatment? Private clinics charged Rs2,000 to Rs5,000 and the poor cannot afford such high fees,’’ said Ghulam Nabi a neighbouring quack. When asked about the risk of spreading diseases such as hepatitis, he said that in all his years, none of his patients had gotten sick.
The quacks said health officials sometimes came by and imposed fine on them, but they would just pay the fine and reopen shop, so to speak. “Usually I get at least three to four patients, which makes me between Rs200 and Rs400, but I face a tough time when no patients visit,” said Muhammad Akhtar another Fawwara Chowk ‘dentist’.
When in the area, the number of elderly people around was striking. “How can I go to a proper clinic where doctors charge me Rs2,000 for a filling? Here it only cost Rs80,” said Muhammad Saif, a patient.
While most quacks lack formal education, a few were driven to the profession in spite of their academic achievements. Muhammad Asghar a Punjab University graduate, claimed that after completing his graduation from Punjab University, he could not get a job for over a year, before moving on to roadside dentistry. “If I can get a good job, I will stop doing this.”
Dr Pakiza Raza, head of dentistry at Polyclinic, said: “It is a fact that the majority of people in our country prefer to visit quack dentists due to a lack of awareness and poverty.” Almost every week, she comes across five to six patients who fell victim to diseases such as hepatitis, osteitis (bone inflammation), osteomyelitis (bone infection) and fistula after getting treatment from quacks.
“These diseases are being transferred via unsterilised equipment and reusing syringes,” Dr Raza added.
Rawalpindi District Health Officer Dr Khalid Randhawa said that it was not possible for the health department to take action against these quacks, because they didn’t have proper clinics.
“Whenever we try to take action against them, they just run away from the footpaths and come back to open shop once we leave,” he lamented.
He said the health department can only take action under the Medical and Dental Degree Ordinance, 1982 and the maximum penalty is a fine of about Rs3,000. He said that due to the absence of proper legislation, quacks are being empowered.
Dr Anser Maqsood head of the dental department at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (Pims), said that over a dozen patients he received every week have hepatitis. He said that they initially get treatment from quacks and only come to real doctors when the situation becomes unbearable.
He said it is high time to create awareness to discourage quackery, and that “this is the best way to eliminate them”.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2012.