Parental neglect of kids’ teeth at rotting point

Children are turning up for their first day of school with alarming levels of tooth decay, as too many parents neglect to take them to a dentist before they turn 5, oral health experts say.

Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay DHBs are two in the lower North Island which are concerned at high numbers of “no-shows” at their dental clinics, with up to half of preschool appointments not kept by parents.

Whanganui has one of the most worrying rates for children, with about 50 per cent of 5-year-olds of all ethnicities trotting off to their first day of school with teeth already starting to decay.

Whanganui District Health Board clinical manager of oral health services Barbara Dawson said parents were regularly failing to bring their toddlers in for scheduled appointments, with dental hygienists often waiting in vain.

While plenty of preschoolers were enrolled with the service, this was no good if half did not get checked, she said.

“We’ve got a lot enrolled now, we’ve made a real push, and we’re seeing them and their mums here as young as five months. It’s really demoralising when people don’t come, and we do try to reach them again in another six months, then again . . . we’ll try up to three times.”

It was imperative that parents took responsibility, she said. “The children don’t give themselves a lolly, they don’t give themselves the food that causes decay.”

Robin Whyman, principal dental officer for Whanganui, and Hawke’s Bay clinical director for oral health, said research showed that the earlier decay set in, the more problems people would have with it later in life.

More incidences of childhood decay in both Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay were partly due to the lack of fluoride in the water, as well as parents not attending appointments and missing out on preventative dental action, he said.

“It is something to be concerned about. We have to talk to them about diet, about toothbrushing, and give out that advice.”

Otago University head of dental public health Murray Thomson said early childhood dental care was a nationwide problem.

Changes to school dental programmes – where many smaller clinics were closed and services centralised – had not improved access for those who needed it most.

“We need to look at the role of big sugar and big food . . . we live in a country where milk is more expensive than Coke now. Where’s the sense in that?”

Dental Association senior oral health adviser Deepa Krishnan said many parents did not realise they needed to start brushing their children’s teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste as soon as the first baby tooth came through.

Juice or sweet drinks should never be given to children under 2, and sugary foods should be limited.

The highest levels of dental decay are in Northland, where 65 per cent of 5-year-olds are affected, according to the the Public Health Association. At the association’s conference in New Plymouth yesterday, Northland District Health Board oral health adviser Shareen Ali said short-term oral health strategies had worked well, but widespread implementation was desperately needed.


Rock band Def Leppard would have a hard time pouring sugar on anyone if a strategy to ban all fizzy drinks from vending machines and make New Zealand “sugar free” catches on.

Sugary drinks would be banned and a tax slapped on all sugar-sweetened drinks under a proposal by Auckland University researcher Gerhard Sundborn, to be presented at the Public Health Association conference today.

In a first step to combat the obesity epidemic, Dr Sundborn said the prolific consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks should be tackled by the Government in a sugar-free strategy, with drinks regulated in the same way tobacco had been.

“These beverages are harmful and very addictive, and these companies look at getting our children hooked. They don’t have any nutritional value in them at all, and a huge amount of sugar, caffeine and flavourings.”

An end-game strategy could see the advertising and sale of sugar-free drinks regulated and replaced by healthier artificially sweetened drinks, or water and milk.

Drinks were the biggest contributor of sugar to children’s diets, and the second-biggest for adults. Currently, 26 per cent of sugar in the average child’s diet is from fizzy drinks, juice, energy drinks and flavoured milk. For adults, sugary drinks were right behind fruit, making up 17 and 18 per cent of sugar content respectively.

Research showed that, when calories were drunk, food intake was not adjusted accordingly, Dr Sundborn said.

Regulating their consumption would be a “significant step” in combating problems such as obesity, diabetes and rotten teeth, he said.

It had already happened at Waitemata and Auckland district health boards, where a policy had been put in place so the hospitals’ vending machines sold only sugar-free drinks. Some schools had maintained the healthy eating regulations scrapped by the Government in 2009, which had banned the drinks. “If that was picked up again, it would make a huge difference.”


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