A HOSPITAL consultant says it is a disgrace that the NHS is footing the bill to remove rotten teeth from children aged as young as four.
Dr John Furness, a consultant paediatrician based at Darlington Memorial Hospital, said weekly ‘extraction’ clinics were taking place at locations including Bishop Auckland and North Tees, Stockton, where youngsters were having “half their mouth taken out”.
He said councils are refusing to pay for a proven public health measure – adding fluoride to water – because of the cost involved.
Decisions on water fluoridation are the responsibility of local authorities, who receive block funding from Public Health England for public health measures and have to prioritise what they spend the money on.
The Northern Echo has learnt that a number of councils in the region have the situation under review, but Dr Furness urged them to act now.
According to County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust in 2016/17 almost 70 children aged under 16 had a primary procedure of dental extraction at hospitals, although Dr Furness said as many as ten a week were having teeth out.
Across the North-East there 618 admissions involving under 18s for extraction of multiple teeth in 2016/17 and 604 in North Yorkshire.
So-called dental caries – tooth decay – remains the number one reason for hospital admissions among children in the North.
An estimated 160 procedures to extract teeth are performed each day under general anaesthetic in hospitals across England, costing the NHS more than £35m a year.
Dr Furness said: “We know that fluoride reduces dental caries and that decay is worse in areas of deprivation.
“A public health care measure that has been proven to work is not occurring because of financial priorities that put children’s health second.
“It is a disgrace that the NHS is paying a bill to extract multiple teeth from children. “There are children every week having teeth taken out– some as young as four – and it is not just one tooth, sometimes it is half the mouth being taken out.”
According to Northumbrian Water about 40 per cent of its water supplies in the North-East are fluoridated as a result of historic arrangements, including in parts of Northumberland, Tyneside and North-West Durham.
Fluoride is naturally present in the water at optimum levels in Hartlepool, which is the highest or joint highest performer in the region for five out of seven oral health indicators.
But that still leaves the vast majority of County Durham and Teesside lacking fluoridation.
Dr Furness said a powerful anti-fluoride lobby was also scaring off councils from going down this route as in some areas successful legal challenges had been launched against fluoridation, leaving local authorities to pick up the bill.
He said: “There is a political point of view that everybody should have the freedom to decide what goes into their water.
“Opponents also say it can cause fluorosis, which is a browning of the teeth, but huge doses [of fluoride] need to be ingested for that happen, not the doses we are talking about.
“The problem is children don’t have the freedom to decide to have whether to have good or teeth or not, particularly where teeth are not being brushed because of neglect.”
Professor Damien Walmsley, the British Dental Association’s (BDA) scientific advisor, said: “Targeted fluoridation in those areas of the country most in need can make a huge difference.
“Half a million people in the UK, including families in Hartlepool, already receive naturally fluoridated water at sufficient levels to improve their teeth. Other cities like Birmingham have had access for 50 years.
“The facts are that fluoridation is safe and is by far the most cost-effective means of reducing the huge inequalities that exist between communities with the best and worst dental health.
“When nearly 40 per cent of Teesside’s children are experiencing tooth decay, this issue should be on the table.”
The Government has launched an initiative ‘Starting Well’, in 13 local authority areas, including Middlesbrough, aimed at improving the oral health of deprived children.
But it has already been criticised by the BDA, which says it does not include any additional investment, and will only benefit relatively few children.
Prof Walmsley added: “England deserves the sort of national effort that is already transforming children’s teeth in Wales and Scotland.
“Any progress on child tooth decay requires parents, politicians and health professionals to work together. Westminster isn’t doing its bit, so it is vital local councillors show leadership.”
The Echo approached a number of councils in the region to ask their position on fluoridation.
Gill O’Neill, consultant in public health at Durham County Council, said: “We are working through the actions and recommendations as set out in the County Durham oral health strategy, including exploring the possibility of water fluoridation.”
Councillor Jim Beall, Stockton Council’s cabinet member for adult social care and health, said it had commissioned tooth brushing and fluoride varnish programmes within schools and as a result tooth decay rates in five year olds had fallen from 32 per cent to 25 per cent.
He said: “We acknowledge that water fluoridation has been shown to reduce levels of tooth decay and we are continuing to keep the possibility of water fluoridation under review.”
A spokesman for Redcar and Cleveland Council said the same programmes in its borough had cut tooth decay rates in five year olds from 36 per cent to 27 per cent.
He also said water fluoridation was under review.
A spokeswoman for Public Health England North East said: “Water fluoridation is the controlled addition of fluoride to a public water supply. It is one of a range of safe and effective measures to improve oral health and help reduce tooth decay in local populations.
“Decisions on water fluoridation are the responsibility of local authorities and Public Health England works closely with them to provide evidence-based advice and guidance where necessary.”