New Zealand's oral health shame

09 May 2018
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A new report finds that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease seen in children and one of the leading causes of hospital admissions for New Zealand children.  

The report, Too soon for the tooth fairy: the implications of child poverty for oral health, has been prepared by the Child Poverty Action group and states that poor oral health in New Zealand children is a major, preventable public health issue.

The report, co-authored by oral health researcher Prathibha Sural and public health specialist Dr Rob Beaglehole, highlights how dental caries (or tooth decay) are preventable disorders which are far more prevalent in children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

“Dental caries - otherwise known as tooth decay - is the most common chronic disease seen in children and one of the leading causes of hospital admissions for New Zealand children,” says Prathibha Sural.

“Over the 2015-2016 year, 29,000 children under the age of 12 had to have one or more teeth removed as a result of severe cavities and infection, and 6600 of those ended up at hospital.

“The cost of this in public healthcare and to taxpayers is huge.”

The report discusses one child who had to have all her teeth removed under general anaesthetic at the age of four.

“Extractions of decayed teeth in young children occur on a day to day basis,” says Dr Rob Beaglehole, who has performed many such surgeries on children.

“Persistent orthodontic problems, as well as social issues for children can occur as a result. They may require expensive orthodontic work on adult teeth, and their confidence suffers.

“Education so that families are more aware of proper nutrition and care for their children’s teeth from before they erupt is imperative, but families must be resourced with the kind of incomes they need to sustain healthy lifestyles if any long-term change is to be seen,” says Dr Beaglehole.

“Tooth decay is a disease of poverty – poorer members of society have significantly worse oral health than the wealthy.”

Professor Toni Ashton, CPAG health spokesperson, says that, “In spite of improvements in oral health being a stated priority of governments for almost two decades, the prevalence of dental problems amongst kiwi kids – especially those in low-income families - remains stubbornly high.

He says it's time for a co-ordinated, comprehensive and long-term strategy is needed to improve children’s oral health, along with sustainable funding.

You can read the full report here.