Fluoride Action Network

Canterbury children record high levels of tooth decay

Source: Stuff.co.nz | July 17th, 2020 | By Tina Law
Location: New Zealand

About 18 per cent of Christchurch 5-year-olds in 2018 and 2019 had an average of six teeth that were either decayed, already pulled out or repaired with a filling.

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Nearly 20 per cent of Canterbury’s 5-year-olds have tooth decay, prompting dental experts to call for a radical rethink of the way New Zealand provides oral health care.

The children with cavities had an average of six teeth that were either decayed, already pulled out or repaired with a filling that’s 30 per cent of their 20 baby teeth.

The appalling figures have led to renewed pleas to fluoridate Christchurch’s water and for “grazing” eating habits to change.

Instead of eating at set times during the day, children have become grazers, Christchurch’s Community Dental Service clinical director, Martin Lee, said.

“We are not sheep, and we’re not eating grass. Frequent food consumption is a big problem when it comes to tooth decay.”

The figures, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday, suggest New Zealand has an ongoing paediatric health crisis, the report’s authors say.

Christchurch’s Community Dental Service clinical director, Martin Lee, says the existing system has failed to prevent tooth decay in children.

Lee and Canterbury and Otago universities health sciences academics Philip Schluter? and Jesse Kokaua? collected data from 10,766 Canterbury 5-year-olds in 2018 and 2019.

Of those, 18.4 per cent had cavities, but the figures were much worse in M?ori (26.2 per cent) and Pacific children (40 per cent). Pacific and M?ori children were also 2.6 and 2.2 times more likely to have had at least one tooth extracted.

The perception that baby teeth do not matter because they fall out anyway is not helping the situation, the study says.

Children with cavities experience pain, swelling, reduced quality of life, have problems eating, and have speech development difficulties that affect learning and playing. They are also away from school and pre-school more often.

Parents’ confusion about kids’ toothpaste will lead to more tooth decay, dentists warn. (Video first published in February 2019)

The study says Canterbury’s high rates could partly be attributable to the lack of fluoride in the water.

Studies of this nature have not been done in other parts of the country so it is not possible to compare figures to other regions.

The authors are calling for change in the way oral health care is provided in New Zealand.

“Our current system is perhaps unintentionally designed for oral health services to perpetually chase its tail.”

They say the existing system, which involves children visiting a dental clinic once a year, has not succeeded so far.

Comment under photo in article
Every child in New Zealand receives a free dental check each year,
but it is not preventing decay. (File photo)

“Instead, a radical rethinking and reframing of oral health care is needed.”

Lee said New Zealand had the best system in the world for repairing decayed teeth, but the solution was not having to do that in the first place.

“The solutions to these problems are not in dental clinics, it’s only going to work if it happens in everyone’s house.”

Lee wants to see dental checks in early childhood centres, and wants those centres to introduce daily tooth brushing.

Scotland introduced a pre-school brushing programme 17 years ago and the amount of money it spends on child dental care has since dropped 50 per cent, Lee said.

However, convincing the Canterbury District Health Board, which is scrambling under a budget deficit, for extra money for something that will save money in five years time is “really hard to pull off”, Lee said.

He knew of two pre-schools in Christchurch who had children brush their teeth each day.

“We think that is what we need to do, but what we also need to do is engage much better with wh?nau.”

Lee wanted the Government to push ahead with a law to pass the power to fluoridate from local body councils to district health boards.

Christchurch is the only metropolitan centre in New Zealand not to have fluoride in its water.

“If you have fluoride and tooth brushing and start looking at food you can get some real changes.”


– Brush twice a day: just spit the toothpaste out rinsing it away washes the fluoride down the drain (and the fish don’t need it because seawater already has fluoride in it).

– Use fluoride toothpaste: be careful when shopping as some well-known brands don’t have any fluoride.

– Start brushing your child’s teeth from when the first baby teeth come through and once they can do it themselves supervise them until they are 7 or 8 years old.

– The bugs that cause tooth decay love things like biscuits, fruit juice, dried fruit, fruit puree and sugar sweetened soft drinks these shouldn’t be in-between meal snacks for children.

* Noodles and bread among food most at risk of causing tooth decay in children
* Tooth decay in South Canterbury a ‘substantial problem’
* Parents confused about kids’ toothpaste could lead to more tooth decay, dentists warn