Hamilton's new Syrian refugee arrivals have major dental issues from living in refugee camps, with some children needing as many as five teeth pulled.

Now local public health officials need dentists who can help.

Many of the newcomers have spent years in camps with scant access to toothbrushes, toothpaste or basic dental care, said Laurel Cooke, manager of the nursing and complex care teams at the Hamilton Family Health Team.

Some children have never seen a dentist in their lives, she said, and are in desperate need of emergency dental work.

"Moms are bringing their kids and showing us their kids' mouths," Cooke said.

'They have teeth falling out of their mouths. There are excessive cavities you can visually see. Some children have four or five adult teeth that need to be removed.' - Laurel Cooke, Hamilton Family Health Team

"They have teeth falling out of their mouths. There are excessive cavities you can visually see. Some children have four or five adult teeth that need to be removed."

About 75 per cent Hamilton's 988 government-assisted refugees need some form of dental work. So local health officials and Wesley Urban Ministries hope some Hamilton dentists and dental hygienists to step forward and help.

"A great majority need some baseline dental care," Cooke said. "The challenge is getting them connected to dentists in the community that can and will do this work."

The magnitude of the need has surprised to agencies connecting refugee families to housing, education, health care and language classes. 

So far, the refugee families have focused on basic needs, such as finding a place to live, said Terry McCarthy, Hamilton Family Health Team executive director. Survival has been higher priority than dentistry.

"They're taking it up sporadically," he said. "They're getting used to the health care system here and don't always make appointments. As familiarity grows, we expect that will change."

'They all have some dental coverage, but probably not good, comprehensive dental coverage.' - Dr. Ninh Tran, associate medical officer of health

Some families are being seen through Public Health's dental clinics, as well as a handful of dentists who have stepped forward. 

In Ontario, children younger than 18 are covered by the Health Smiles Ontario Program, said Dr. Ninh Tran, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health.

The Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), Canada's health program for refugees, provides limited dental care, Tran said. For example, it covers basic procedures such as extractions, but not root canals.

Getting reimbursed through IFHP is also "quite a bit of a significant process," he said.

"They all have some dental coverage, but probably not good, comprehensive dental coverage."

Cooke says they particularly need dental workers who can speak Arabic. She recommends any willing dentists or dental hygienists contact Wesley Urban Ministries.

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC