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WHO Global Oral Health strategy
Photo: hriana – 123RF

A new policy directive from the World Health Organization could be the long-awaited breakthrough that is needed to deliver better oral health outcomes in developing countries. By Cameron Cooper

The fight against preventable dental diseases has taken a giant leap forward with the World Health Organization’s pursuit of a Global Oral Health strategy.

At WHO’s 75th World Health Assembly in May 2022, member states agreed to back the plan, which is part of a bold initiative to deliver better oral care to all people and communities by 2030.

In the past, critics have argued that oral health has been a neglected issue internationally. One of WHO’s major goals is to address that perception, noting that there are more than 3.5 billion cases worldwide of oral diseases and other debilitating oral conditions.

A key aim is to stop the spread of common non-communicable diseases that result from lax policies related to tobacco, alcohol and ultra-processed foods. According to WHO, for the past three decades the combined international prevalence of tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss has remained unchanged at 45 per cent, a rate that is higher than any other non-communicable disease. 

Oral health also encompasses oral cancers, orofacial clefts, traumatic dental injury and noma, a disease that most commonly occurs in young children who are living in extreme poverty.

A historic moment

FDI World Dental Federation president Professor Ihsane Ben Yahya has described the WHO strategy as a “historic moment for the oral health community” and one which aligns with the FDI’s own report, ‘Vision 2030: Delivering Optimal Oral Health for All’

The three pillars of the FDI campaign are to foster universal coverage for oral health; integrate oral health into the general health and development agenda; and build a resilient oral health workforce. 

Professor Ben Yahya says it is now essential for WHO and FDI members to complement each other’s efforts on the ground to ensure the successful implementation of the WHO strategy. “In this way, we can help achieve the common goal of improving the oral health and wellbeing of the populations we serve,” she says.

Dr Mark Hutton, the Australian Dental Association president, agrees that the WHO campaign is a possible game changer. “The significance is that, potentially, governments will take a greater focus on oral health,” he says. “It’s good to see the WHO taking charge of promoting oral health globally.”

We can only hope that this will highlight the importance of oral health to countries around the world and improve oral health outcomes, as those act upon what is suggested.

Dr Mikaela Chinotti, oral health promoter, ADA

Dr Hutton says the policy adds to the ongoing work by the FDI. To translate this announcement into a real action plan for public oral health, he would like to see WHO liaise and work with FDI and national dental organisations “to get action on the ground” in a range of different countries. “It would be great for them to talk to governments directly to highlight the importance of oral health and the need for appropriate action plans, reflective of the strategic plan.” 

Impact on wellbeing 

The WHO strategy is the culmination of a long campaign among member states to integrate oral health into general health initiatives. 

Pain and disease in the mouth can affect a person’s ability to eat and speak, as well as impact their self-confidence and mental wellbeing. WHO’s view is that addressing oral health concerns and investing in appropriate solutions can strengthen overarching health outcomes in developing countries and improve equitable outcomes for poorer and underprivileged people.

Dr Mikaela Chinotti, ADA’s oral health promoter, says WHO’s policy has the potential to make a difference to oral health outcomes globally. “We can only hope that this will highlight the importance of oral health to countries around the world and improve oral health outcomes as those act upon what is suggested,” she says.

Dr Chinotti adds that the development could have broader impacts on people’s general health. “Given the links between oral and general health, if countries adopt the WHO oral health strategy, the overall health of individuals in countries around the world may be improved. However, it is important to be mindful of the varying social determinants affecting the oral health of populations in different countries.” 

Unhealthy social habits such as smoking have been of particular concern in many developing countries. Dr Chinotti says the hope now is that governments will adopt WHO’s strategy. “We would hope that healthy diets and oral health impediments and other damaging oral habits are addressed.”

High price to pay

Non-communicable diseases such as oral infections and cancers are rampant in some countries. However, WHO’s new strategy creates hope that countries can crack down on practices that contribute to poor oral health outcomes. 

Dr Hutton says oral health conditions have an impact on all people, with results varying from country to country. “But the oral habits of some countries need to be reviewed, especially smoking, alcohol consumption and betel nut chewing, to enable better oral health.” 

Seeking treatment for oral health issues is often costly in developing countries. This can often lead to the most vulnerable members of society prioritising other health concerns over their dental health. Dr Hutton hopes Australian dentists will, where possible, play their part in promoting WHO’s goals. “ADA is an active participant in FDI, and they are a leading force in this space. Many Australian dental practitioners are already volunteering overseas and are inadvertently already carrying out suggestions from the WHO strategy.”  

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