WHEN an infection forced Shelley to have her teeth removed two years ago, she thought that would be the end of her dental problems.

But despite countless calls to NHS dentists, the mum, from Newport, has been unable to secure an appointment to have dentures fitted, leaving her feeling "embarrassed" and "ashamed".

"I ended up having two operations to remove all my teeth," Shelley told the Argus. "Now I’m left with no teeth, as I am unable to get a dentist anywhere to get dentures done.

"Two years without any teeth has affected my self-esteem and my mental health.

"I don't go out in public, I rarely smile. I haven’t had a family photo done for years."

Shelley was among the Argus readers who shared with us their frustrations over access to NHS dental care. Recently, an investigation found dozens of dentists in Wales stopped offering NHS treatments last year, compared with 2020 – in Gwent alone there were 25 fewer NHS dentists than a year previously.

Our readers told us they were fed up with spending years on waiting lists, in some cases having to fork out for emergency private care because minor dental problems had snowballed.

The problem is tied to finances in many cases, with readers like Shelley telling us they can't afford to pay for private treatment and beat the NHS waiting lists.  

"I've constantly rung and emailed dentists but no luck," she said. "I cannot afford to go private as I’m [in] a low-income family and I can’t even afford to pay monthly installments."

Shelley is far from alone. Another reader, who asked to remain anonymous, said she moved to Gwent three years ago and had been trying to find an NHS dentist ever since.

Now pregnant, she is concerned about heightened risks of dental problems, but her requests to join waiting lists are rejected.

"I explain my situation but they state they can't help me, nor they cannot recommend anyone else," she told us. "This is awful. I can't afford private dentistry either.

"The situation with NHS dentists in Wales is horrendous. It's a huge issue which isn't being addressed."

The recent investigation found NHS dental availability hadn't just declined here, and the British Dental Association (BDA) warned NHS dentistry in Wales and England was "hanging by a thread".

The issues predate Covid-19, but some of our readers said the pandemic had made their access to NHS dental care worse. During the more restricted periods of lockdown, all non-emergency dental care in Wales was postponed. 

Helen, from Newport, told us months of calls to her surgery had fallen on deaf ears, even though her dentists had raised the prospect of braces and referrals for her son.

"Getting an appointment is nearly impossible," she said, adding: "The whole situation is a shambles and should not be allowed to happen in Wales or the UK, where we have an NHS."

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board declined to comment on the specific cases raised but did provide a statement on the wider problems around access to NHS dental treatment.

A spokesman said the pandemic had caused "significant challenges" to dental services and practices had "adapted" to maintain levels of care.

Some restrictions at surgeries remain, despite the recent move to Alert Level Zero in Wales.

"This reduces the number of patients that can be seen," the spokesman said. "The health board acknowledges that access to NHS dental care remains a challenge and as part of the restart and recovery programme, has invested an extra £840,000 in areas such as urgent access, oral surgery, orthodontic and sedation services, to address backlogs in care."

Urgent access appointments in Gwent have increased from 157 to 300 availabilities per week, he added.

We also asked the Welsh Government, which runs the NHS in Wales, to comment on the issue.

A spokesman said: "We are committed to meeting the needs of NHS dentistry patients in Wales through preventive care and increased access, supported by contract reform."

The Welsh Government acknowledged its Covid restrictions "mean fewer patients can be seen in person and practices have been asked to treat people according to need".

"We are providing health boards with up to £3 million in 2021-22 to boost access to NHS dental services, and £2 million recurrently from 2022-23 to support increased provision," the spokesman added.

• People who do not attend a dental practice regularly and wish to access dental care can email ABBDental.Helpline@wales.nhs.uk to obtain contact details of NHS dental practices within the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area.