Every year, New Zealand hospitals see over 40,000 admissions for poverty-related and potentially preventable health issues in children. Chronic poor physical health in children can lead to problems lasting into adulthood, and poor dental health is no exception to the rule.
Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has released a new report this morning, Too soon for the tooth fairy: the implications of child poverty for oral health, which summarises current knowledge about the prevalence of poor oral health among children in Aotearoa-New Zealand.
The report is co-authored by oral health researcher Prathibha Sural and public health specialist Dr Rob Beaglehole, and has been prepared with the aim of stimulating action on this major, preventable public health issue.
"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 author 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, alarmingly, 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.
"Mere lip service has been paid to this problem for far too long: it is time for action," says Dr Ashton.
CPAG says that a co-ordinated, comprehensive and long-term strategy is needed to improve children’s oral health, along with sustainable funding.
Potential solutions for consideration include significantly boosting family incomes, a comprehensive, parent-targeted education programme, broader provision of fluoride in water, reducing the sugar content in our food, and the implementation of a health levy on sugary drinks.