Poor dental health in some children is a problem of inequality, experts say

A Northland director raises the alarm about children’s oral hygiene in his area.

Research from the University of Otago found that 60 percent of Māori and 70 percent of Pasifika children have already experienced some form of tooth decay by age five (file image).
Photo: 123RF

Hora Hora Primary School is located just off the main street in Whangārei.

Headmaster Pat Newman said tooth decay was a serious problem at his school — and it came down to cost.

“If you don’t have a lot of money, then you want to reward your children every now and then,” he said.

“If soda is cheaper than water and junk food is cheaper than good food, that’s what happens.”

Research from the University of Otago found that 60 percent of Māori and 70 percent of Pasifika children have already experienced some form of tooth decay by the age of five.

The article’s author, Dr. Dorothy Boyd, said unhealthy foods were forced on children. “You will often find that the marketing of unhealthy foods is aimed at children,” she said. “For example, the breakfast cereals with the most sugars often have cartoon characters.”

Rebecca Ahmadi, a dental therapist who used to work in schools, said even the most well-meaning parents struggle with marketing.

“They’re like ‘where are the chips? Where are the sticky granola bars?’ So we’re competing with supermarkets that supply all this food that presents opportunities for tooth decay,” she said.

If parents couldn’t prevent tooth decay, it was up to dentists to pick up the pieces, but dental therapist Helen Tane said the system struggled to keep up with demand.

“We struggled with the labor shortage to reach all children,” she said. “What would happen is that the higher socioeconomic areas, where the parents could advocate on behalf of their children, would request that they be seen more often.”

As a result, children in areas with a low decile area received less attention.

Auckland dentist Vikki Nelson said that as children’s teeth got worse, the treatment became more invasive.

“I’m getting teeth out of kids again, that just shouldn’t be happening,” she said. “They’re not accommodating in the dental chair because they’re in pain and they’re scared, so we have to get them to the hospitals to be sedated, and the waiting lists are nine to 12 months.”

dr. Rebecca Ahmadi said the government’s funding did not go far enough.

“As the money went from top to bottom, there was very little left to provide the preventive care the children so desperately needed,” she said. “We ended up providing only the essential care, which is an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff.”

But director Pat Newman wanted the community to take more responsibility.

“When does it come down to society playing a role in this?” he said. “When does it come down to whānau saying ‘hey, you shouldn’t give your kid that Coke’, where does the responsibility of whānau and the community come in?

“We have alot [advice] about healthy eating, but it is often not paid attention to. And as a result, the oral hygiene of children in Te Tai Tokerau is, in my opinion, third-world quality.”

Dr Boyd said change had to be made. “This is an opportunity for radical change,” she said. “However, this cannot be left to oral health care. As a society, it is time for us to demand that our children be empowered to be healthy.”

She recommended limiting the marketing of junk food to children and making healthy food affordable for low-income families.

Poor dental health in some children is a problem of inequality, experts say

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