A trial aimed at reducing tooth decay in under fives in Northern Ireland — where £60m a year is spent to treat patients with tooth decay — has been launched.
The province has the worst oral health in the UK — a five-year-old from Northern Ireland has on average 2.5 teeth affected by decay, while a five-year-old in England has on average 1.5 teeth affected by decay.
The problem is so bad that last year 26,500 teeth were extracted from children who underwent a general anaesthetic in hospital for dental extraction.
According to experts in the Oral Health Strategy for Northern Ireland, poor oral health here is a result of a variety of factors, including the fact the province is the most deprived part of the UK, people here do not clean their teeth as often as people in countries with better dental health, and the public water supplies are not fluoridated.
People in Northern Ireland also spend the largest amount on sugary foods and drinks in the UK, the document states.
The study, the first trial of its kind in Europe, will see 2,400 children across Northern Ireland visit their dentist every six months for three years where a fluoride varnish will be applied to their teeth.
They will also be given fluoride toothpaste to use at home.
Each child will be monitored over three years to check if they develop dental caries, more commonly known as cavities or tooth decay.
Launching the trial yesterday, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said: “This trial will investigate a new approach to preventing tooth decay at an early age by applying fluoride varnish to teeth as well as using fluoride toothpaste.
“It is vitally important that we look at new approaches to tackling tooth decay as, unfortunately, young people in Northern Ireland have the worst oral health in the British Isles and indeed some of the worst oral health in western Europe.”
The trial, which will cost a total of £1.7m, works on the premise that fluoride is effective at preventing tooth decay but will explore how it should be given to children. It is expected to begin in the new year but it will be at least four years before the results are known.
At this stage health chiefs will look at how best to deliver any fluoride supplement programme to children.
Mr McGimpsey added: “We know of course that reducing our consumption of sugary foods and drink is extremely effective in preventing dental decay but experience has shown us that, although patients understand this message, they tend not to change their diet sufficiently to make a difference to their oral health.
“The use of fluoride through this trial offers us the best opportunity to make a significant impact in improving our oral health.
“Investing in preventive care now will provide dividends for the next generation.
“I very much look forward to the results of this trial and wish the team every success.”
Seamus Killough, chair of British Dental Association (BDA) in Northern Ireland, said: “Inequalities in health continue to be prevalent in Northern Ireland. The BDA is committed to promoting initiatives and actions that tackle these inequalities.
“This trial, supported as it is by the BDA, will certainly help in tackling these inequalities,” he added.