Dr Samarika Dahal: Pioneering forensic odontology in Nepal
Posted: 2 March 2023
To mark International Women’s Day 2023, we are highlighting the contributions of Dr Samarika Dahal, an Australia Awards alum from Nepal, whose work embodies the UN Women theme for this year’s International Women’s Day: ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’.
As Associate Professor and Head of Department at the Institute of Medicine’s Maharajgunj Medical Campus in Kathmandu, Dr Dahal has played a crucial role for more than a decade in identifying disaster victims and developing the forensic odontology field in Nepal. Forensic odontology is a branch of dentistry that uses dental examination in support of criminal and civil law by identifying deceased persons, assessing their age and estimating other characteristics.
Of just two formally trained forensic odontologists in Nepal, Dr Dahal is the first to be registered with the Nepal Medical Council and the only one currently involved in casework.
Dr Dahal’s first step towards pursuing a career in dentistry was obtaining a Bachelor of Dental Surgery from Universal College of Medical Sciences, Bhairahawa (Nepal). She subsequently completed a Master of Oral Pathology from Manipal College of Dental Sciences, Mangalore (India).
After returning from India in 2011, Dr Dahal joined the Institute of Medicine as a Lecturer in the Department of Dentistry. In September the next year, a domestic flight from Kathmandu to the Everest region crashed near Kathmandu’s Airport. The bodies of 19 casualties were brought to the Institute of Medicine’s Department of Forensic Medicine for identification. Given the severe impact of the accident on the deceased’s remains, Dr Dahal and one of her colleagues were asked to identify them through dental examination. Their work helped identify almost 75% of the deceased. “The bodies were returned to the families, and this is what touched me significantly,” Dr Dahal says.
The experience motivated her to further explore the field of forensic odontology. With the support of Australia Awards, in 2013 she completed a Fellowship in Forensic Dentistry from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Melbourne, Australia. During her time in Australia, Dr Dahal learnt more about international standards in identifying disaster victims and gained experience with virtual autopsies. Later, she earned a Master of Science in Forensic Dentistry from the University of Dundee, United Kingdom.
Since Dr Dahal’s experience with the 2012 plane crash, forensic odontology in Nepal has evolved, with developments in data collection, storage, analysis and, importantly, access to technology. In 2020, Dr Dahal received an Australia Awards alumni grant to procure a portable dental x-ray unit for her department.
“Initially, we were restricted to clinical dental examination,” Dr Dahal says, “but with the support of Australia Awards, we received a portable dental x-ray unit, which allows us to collect radiographic images of teeth during the identification process.”
The portable x-ray machine has benefited her team immensely by helping them to establish more accurate identification of the deceased more rapidly.
There are still difficulties in Nepal in accessing advanced odontology equipment; such access is crucial to keep practitioners’ skills and knowledge up to date with recent technology and developments. To overcome these challenges, Dr Dahal takes part in professional development courses, and her team seek donor support to procure advanced equipment. She also raises awareness about documentation and maintenance of dental records among dental practitioners—another key challenge in Nepal.
Identification using dental examination is useful in Nepal because it is quick and inexpensive. However, according to Dr Dahal, the primary challenge in forensic odontology in Nepal is the lack of formally trained dentists. To address this challenge, Dr Dahal has trained 30 Nepali dental professionals in disaster victim identification: some of her trainees have since assisted in many disasters. “The field itself was less recognised in the initial stages, but with sheer presence and dedication, I believe that this field has become an integral part in the identification process of the dead,” says Dr Dahal.
Today, Dr Dahal is connected with and contributes to a global network of forensic odontologists to keep improving her expertise at home and in the region. She is an active regional expert in South Asian countries such as Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. She has trained more than 1000 dentists from over 10 countries in mass fatality management and disaster victim identification. Furthermore, Dr Dahal maintains strong linkages with her colleagues in Australia. In fact, during the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, an Australian counterpart travelled to Nepal to support her team. Dr Dahal continues to apply her Australian learnings to her casework and, when relevant, seeks the input of Australian experts in conducting her work and publishing articles.
More than ten years after the experience that first motivated her to pursue forensic odontology, Dr Dahal still believes her most significant contribution in major disasters in Nepal is the ability to give an identity to the deceased and reunite them with their family members. “It is important for the family to know the fate of their missing loved ones,” says Dr Dahal. “My work helps in identifying the deceased, using scientific process. This is important for the families as it gives them closure.”