Cuba takes harsh look at dentistry woes

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HAVANA, Oct 29 (Reuters) It may not be fun anywhere but visiting the dentist in Cuba is a still unhappier prospect marked by a lack of dentists, technicians, materials and even reclining chairs, an official newspaper reported.

In Cuba's second internal criticism in as many weeks, a team of reporters from the Juventud Rebelde, or Rebel Youth, fanned out to 22 dental clinics in various provinces only to discover the problems were the norm, not exception in the free system of more than 1,000 facilities.

''The majority of the 22 clinics lacked adequate professional and technical personnel, more than half had passed through crisis due to a lack of water, dentist chairs, materials to fill cavities, significant delays for dentures,'' according to the article headlined ''Dentistry Dilemma.'' Other problems included services provided through underground clinics -- at a price -- and patients waiting for hours in offices with little air conditioning and few toilet facilities.

The 76-year-old Raul Castro has fostered more discussion of Cuba's problems and encouraged the state-run media to be more critical since taking over for his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since undergoing a series of abdominal surgeries and appeared frail though alert in recent videos.

Over the last six weeks, neighborhoods and work places have held discussions on the problems they face in their daily lives, and the deterioration of services reportedly was one of the top complaints, Yesterday's report followed by just a week a similar critical article on health care in general and publication of a story in the Communist Party newspaper, Granma, detailing teacher shortages and other problems in the education system.

Cuba takes pride in its free health and education systems as the two most important achievements of the socialist society built after the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 and official criticism is rare.

But the economic crisis that hit Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and tougher US sanctions have taken a toll, National Director of Dentistry Dr Armando Mojaiber de la Pena was quoted as saying, with the annual hard currency budget cut by as much as 500 percent from the 1980s to the 1990s.

Mojaiber de la Pena told the newspaper thousands of dentists and technicians were being trained, more resources were flowing into the system and dentists who charged for services pursued.

''Today our data compares with developed countries. Sixty-eight percent of Cuban children up to age 5 have no cavities and 90 percent of the population up to 18 years have all their teeth,'' he said.

After that, the doctor admitted, dentures may be hard to come by, with the country currently producing just half of the annual demand.

Reuters SYU DB0854

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