It's hard to believe that in 2018, nearly a fifth of five-year olds who are eligible for free school meals, have severe or extensive tooth decay.
But dentists in Northern Ireland believe it, because they see it everyday, and we think it's time for Government to step up and do something about it. And we need not just words, but real action, with joined up thinking, and the appropriate investment to turn the tide.
Oral health needs to be given a much higher priority than it has been. Tooth decay is largely preventable, so how can we stand by and let young children be in pain, undergo general anaesthetic for tooth extractions, and also let this have potential detrimental impact on their futures and life chances?
Compared to the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is lagging well behind. According
to the most recent Children’s Dental Health Survey (2013), only 31% of children in
Northern Ireland ‘had good overall oral health’.
It seems remarkable that dental and oral health has been virtually excluded from the wider public health debate, or oftentimes, an afterthought, at a time when nationally at least, policymakers are starting to see the need for much greater co-ordinated action on ensuring good oral hygiene routines and raising awareness of how sugar impacts on teeth.
Recently, we've been meeeting with the health spokespeople from each of the main political parties and to brief them on these shocking facts.
We've asked for their help and support on pressing for change. We're also meeting with MPs and MLAs to garner support and show that together, we can do something that will make a huge difference to children's lives and our country.
We're highlighting to them the cost of over £9million a year for GAs, the scandal of preventable diseases still being rife, and the need for a coordinated and appropriately funded Northern Ireland wide strategy that is the solution to the problem.
In April, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (sugar tax) will come into force; a move that was welcomed by the BDA. We've asked for some of this money to be invested into dentistry to make the dream of lowering the scourge of tooth decay a reality – it remains to be seen if the commitment to do so is really there.
It has been said that 'sugar is the new tobacco' in terms of most pressing risks to public health. However, authorities in Northern Ireland seem to have been slow in recognising it.
By adopting a co-ordinated approach to smoking, which encompassed targeted legislation, taxation, and public information campaigns, we have witnessed considerable success in shifting society's view away from acceptance of this harmful practice. Ultimately, we expect this to lead to a lowering of lung cancer rates, and increasing survival rates.
Surely a similar population wide conversation is needed for sugar.
So why is Northern Ireland's Oral Health Strategy now 11-years old?
Fresh vision and ambition towards improving oral health outcomes for children, and meaningful leadership from Government departments and public bodies on the issue is badly needed.
We'd love to hear your thoughts, please get in touch with us if you have any comments, or want to help support our campaigning work.
Tristen Kelso, Director
BDA Northern Ireland
BDA Northern Ireland
BDA Northern Ireland supports, represents and promotes, the interests of all dentists working in Northern Ireland. Working with elected committee members, we negotiate on behalf of the profession on terms and conditions, pay and contracts. Join us.