Australian’s dental health is getting worse!

Every year that passes sees the dental health of Australians fall further and further behind the national targets set for 2025. Currently dental decay and gum disease is a growing problem in our community, and this is being made worse by the reduced attendance of Australians for their regular dental checks, preventive dental care and treatment due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Poor dental attendance and increasing dental disease

Reasons given for not visiting the dentist include concerns about proximity to others but the facts of the matter are dental practices have to adhere to very stringent cross infection control guidelines that ensure dental treatment is safe and inadvertent transfer of infection between the dental team and their patients is highly unlikely.
Other reasons for not visiting the dentist during the COVID-19 Pandemic are loss of jobs and reduced income. People are spending more time at home with social distancing and working from home and that leads to snacking on unhealthy sugary snacks to break the boredom.

Dental health data indicates that:

  • 1 in 3 of us are walking around with untreated dental decay in our teeth.
  • 1 in 4 has untreated gum disease that may lead to tooth loss.

These figures (2018-2020) are disturbing and not likely to improve unless Australians’ awareness of the problem is increased and people take action before its too late.

  • Decay and gum disease are both preventable conditions but the prevalence continues to rise.
  • The number of adults with potentially painful tooth decay has risen from a quarter of the population (1 in 4) to a third (1 in 3).
  • At the same time the prevalence of adults with gum disease has risen from 20% (1 in 5) to 29% (almost 1 in 3).

Toothache affected 20% of Australians over the last 12 months and the cost in terms of lost working hours and lost income along with reduced national production is very significant.

Prevention of dental disease

Prevention depends in part on the effectiveness of our tooth brushing and only half the population brush their teeth twice each day. The other significant risk factor for dental disease is sugar intake. Much of the sugar we swallow is in “hidden sugars” in the foods we buy where sugar is used both as a preservative and to enhance flavour. Additional sugar intake comes from fruit juices, spreads, pre-packaged and processed meals and soft drinks.

Tooth brushing must be taught

Correct methods of tooth cleaning need to be taught and the best time to start is in childhood when behaviour patterns are formed. But in Australia, very little oral health is taught either to children or to potential parents at antenatal classes or at young mothers/parents groups.

90% of people brush for less than 2 minutes per day. This is far too little time to perform effective removal of plaque from all the surfaces of the teeth and therefore a large amount of plaque remains on the teeth, particularly between teeth and under the gum margins due to inadequate or ineffective brushing.

Who’s responsible for improving our dental health

Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own tooth brushing, for reducing their own sugar intake, and for ensuring they attend for dental checks.

The Australian Government must raise awareness and prioritise dental health and actively promote oral health messages to the population and support dental treatment.

Currently, Australia is one of the few developed nations to exclude dental care from general health care arrangements. Medicare does not fund general dental care for most of the population. Most dental treatment is provided either at full cost to the patient or under the arrangements set down by private health insurers.

There are many people who feel they cannot afford dental care. Those who have healthcare cards and receive certain government support can access dental care through State dental services where the range of services is often limited due to the long waiting lists, the large number of patients and too few dental care providers in the State dental services.

Dental care needs to be promoted, funded and advertised to improve the uptake of the oral health messages and dental health information, to improve the nations dental health. We need to act now or our children will pay the price in poor dental health, with tooth loss, painful dental decay and infection.

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