ALMOST half of all Victorian children have decayed teeth, potentially causing learning difficulties and behavioural problems.
And rural Victorian kids’ teeth are twice as bad as those in metropolitan Melbourne because most regional water supplies are unfluoridated.
Research by Deakin University, the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute has revealed 44 per cent of Victorian infants under four have dental caries and 78 per cent of dental problems are untreated.
“This is a very sad state of affairs, an absolute travesty, because it’s entirely preventible,” said head researcher Professor Elizabeth Waters, from Deakin University.
The collaborative study also found 12 per cent of five-year-olds had experienced toothache.
“The level of pain that comes with dental caries can be stunning,” Prof Waters said. “And children in pain or discomfort from chronic dental decay are more likely to have behavioural problems.”
She said early dental caries could have devastating effects on children for the rest of their lives.
“Children in pain are less likely to be able to concentrate in class, so it affects their ability to learn,” Prof Waters said.
“Poor dental health affects chewing, so it has an impact on diet, nutrition, growth and development.
“And psychosocially, poor oral health can affect speech, communication, self-image and socialisation to further reduce their chances in life.”
Caries is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria streptococci mutans, which flourishes in a high carbohydrate environment.
Streptococci mutans can be passed on by infected saliva, so parents with the bug in their mouths can infect their children by licking spoons or dummies.
But caries are easily prevented by exposure to fluoride, either in toothpaste or through fluoridated water supplies. The study found that most rural parents were unaware fluoride was absent from their water supplies.
“Sixty-five per cent of parents of rural children believed their water supply was fluoridated when in fact it wasn’t,” Prof Waters said.
Another common misconception was that baby teeth didn’t count.
“People think baby teeth aren’t important because they fall out,” she said.
“But if the bacteria is already in their mouths, children’s second teeth can decay from the moment they first erupt.”
Prof Waters said dental health had failed to keep pace with other medical advances and dental decay among Victorian children was rising again for the first time in 20 years.
Low knowledge of dental health, even among healthcare professionals such as GPs and maternal and child health nurses, poor access to dental services and high costs were all to blame, she said.
“Very few pre-school-aged children ever have contact with a dental service provider,” she said.
“Dental health has always been seen as the domain of dentists, but many dentists don’t want to see kids until they’re about six or seven and have stopped wriggling in the chair.
“But by then, their dental caries are well established.”
Australasian Academy of Pediatric Dentistry president James Lucas said dentists and other healthcare workers must realise dental health had far-reaching effects on children.
“More dentists need to be aware of the relationship between dental health and general health for children and that the basis of adult dental health is having healthy teeth as kids,” he said.
“And regional councils have to realise the importance of fluoride in their water supplies for the future of rural children’s health.”
For healthy teeth in the young …
1 Wipe children’s teeth with toothpaste as soon as teeth appear in their mouth. Exposure to fluoride by wiping is a good alternative if parents find brushing children’s teeth too difficult or fear brushing will hurt their gums.
2 Check kids’ teeth regularly for decay and don’t wait for problems to appear. Look for white spots on children’s teeth near the gum line.
3 Allow children to drink only water, breastmilk, formula or milk. Avoid soft drinks and juices which are full of concentrated sugar.
4 Give children sugar-free or low-sugar snacks such as fruit, vegie sticks, dried biscuits, toast or bread. Be careful with dried fruit which can stick to teeth. Avoid sweets and roll-up “health” bars.
5 Role model good dental health behaviours to your children. Make teeth brushing fun and do it together with your children.