One in ten children admitted to hospitals in Sussex for an operation are being treated for tooth decay.
Figures released to The Argus reveal hundreds of youngsters a year are being kept in hospital to deal with serious cavities and other dental work.
An average of 10% of the total admissions to Sussex’s main hospitals for general and local anaesthetics during 2008 were for dental treatment.
Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Royal Sussex County Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital in Brighton and the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, carried out 539 operations on teeth out of a total of 5,816 operations on children.
East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust had 229 dental operations out of 2,068 while Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS Trust had 1,658 operations, 189 of them on teeth.
The Argus has also discovered that dentists across the county have carried out almost 100,000 treatments on under 18s including fillings, root canal work and tooth extractions since last April.
In Brighton and Hove alone there were 30,522 treatments while in West Sussex the figure was 38,649.
Figures for East Sussex were not available but all three areas are expecting to report a rise in the number of procedures carried out on treatment for under 18s compared to the year before.
The statistics, released to The Argus under the Freedom of Information Act, are likely to renew concerns about the state of children’s teeth in the county.
It has also sparked calls for health bosses to consider the controversial method of adding fluoride to water.
Earlier this year health bosses in Southampton agreed to start adding fluoride to tap water despite opposition.
South East Coast Strategic Health Authority consultant in dental public health, Chris Allen, said it would not consider adopting the policy unless there was a full debate.
He said: “We recognise and support fluoridation as an effective way to improve dental health.
“Dental health across Sussex is very good in comparison to other parts of the country, although we know there are communities where children are suffering from significant levels of tooth decay.
“If a local NHS trust was to recommend a water fluoridation scheme as the most effective approach to tackling these problems, we would conduct a full consultation exercise to obtain the views of the public.
“More targeted prevention such as encouraging tooth brushing in schools or making fluoride treatments more widely available through dental services are among other approaches which may be more beneficial for the specific needs of our local population.”
Sarah Crosbie, director of dental services at South Downs Health NHS Trust, which runs services in Brighton and Hove, backed the idea of adding fluoride to tap water but said a lot of other work was being done.
This includes targeting more deprived areas of Brighton and Hove where there tends to be higher numbers of children with tooth decay.
Ms Crosbie said there was also a lot parents could do to help.
She said: “Teeth should be brushed last thing at night and on one other occasion using a smear of toothpaste and young children up to seven should be helped and supervised.
“The frequency and amount of sugary food and drinks should be reduced, and when consumed, limited to mealtimes.
“Parents should also take their child to a dentist as soon as the teeth start coming through.
“The dentist will advise how frequently the child needs to attend.
“It is now recommended that all children from three years upwards have fluoride varnish professionally applied to their teeth.”
Horsham-based dentist Anita Patel said: “I am seeing larger numbers of children with teeth problems and I believe a lot of that is down to diet more than anything else.
“I support the idea of fluoridation as research has shown it really can reduce the number of dental problems such as fillings by as much as 50% in some areas.”
However opponents of fluoridation, including the National Pure Water Association, say it is forced mass medication and it is tackling areas of deprivation that will reduce tooth decay rather than ingesting fluoride.
Patient groups blame a shortage of dentists for the decline in teeth health.
A spokesman for the Patient Action Group in Sussex said: “The problem is that a lot of families try to sign up to a dentist but are told they don’t treat children and the nearest one they can get is miles away.
“That means paying out travel expenses they might not be able to afford.
“Money is tight at the moment and so some things just go to the bottom of the list. It’s only when a problem develops that they then go to a dentist and by then it’s too late.”
Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) insist there are dental services available and more NHS practices are expected to open across Sussex over the next year.
For more information about health in your area go to the local information section of this website.
Has your child had problems with their teeth? Tell us your stories by calling Siobhan Ryan on 01273 544543 or leaving your comments below.