Failing NZ dental system in need of urgent change according to oral specialists

New Zealand dental system
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Urgent and radical change is needed to address the declining dental health of Aotearoa New Zealand’s children, but the problem is too huge to be tackled by just one service, a group of Kiwi oral specialists say.

A paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, led by University of Otago pediatric dentistry senior lecturer Dr Dorothy Boyd, says dental decay is the most prevalent non-communicable childhood disease in New Zealand. 

Māori, Pasifika, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and those without access to community water fluoridation are most affected.

Aotearoa has a long tradition of providing publicly funded dental care for children and young people, yet by age five, 60 per cent of Māori, 70 per cent of Pasifika, and 33 per cent of non-Māori/non-Pasifika children have already experienced dental decay.

“Early childhood caries—disease in young children’s teeth—has been described as a modern neglected epidemic and is getting worse,” Dr Boyd said.

“Despite the hard work of dental professionals in the midst of the early childhood caries tsunami, every part of the oral health care system is stressed, with long waiting lists, inconsistent collaboration between primary, secondary and tertiary care, and inconsistent access to, and types of, care offered across the country.”

This all compounds the suffering of children and whanau.

“The entire oral healthcare workforce is under-resourced, and Māori and Pasifika are under-represented in it,” Dr Boyd said, adding that the problem is too far-reaching to be managed without a collaborative and coordinated approach across health and society as a whole.

Reducing the extent of unhealthy foods marketed to children and addressing the affordability of healthy food, fluoride toothpaste and toothbrushes, would be a good start.

“All children deserve to eat, sleep, learn and play without dental pain and oral infection,” Dr Boyd said.

“We all must agitate for changes that will enable children to grow up in Aotearoa New Zealand with the health that they deserve.”

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