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Oral Health 2020

How to prevent oral disease

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Mick Armstrong

Chair, British Dental Association

World Oral Health Day provides a chance to look at the facts.

Taken together, tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancers now affect almost half the global population.

Across the world, 3.5 billion people are dealing with oral disease, and untreated decay is the single most common health condition.

The figures are eye-watering, but the solutions are straightforward.

It’s about prevention. It’s what you and your dentist can do together, underpinned by action from government to help us make healthier choices. It boils down to good habits, a supportive environment and decent access to services.

The oral health gap

By almost every measure, Britain’s teeth are in better shape than they were a generation ago.

The challenge is deep inequalities that show little sign of closing. It’s the children born in Lancashire that start school with 20 times the levels of decay as those born in Surrey.

For every £1 spent on prevention in nursery schools, £3 is saved in lower treatment costs.

North and South, rich and poor, these inequalities aren’t inevitable.

Policy makers and the general public need to grasp that oral health is not an optional extra, but a fundamental part of overall health, and impacts on confidence and prospects.

Paying the price for inaction

Indifference to dentistry comes at a cost.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that failure to prevent oral disease has made the problem the fourth most expensive condition to treat.

We shouldn’t accept that decay remains the number one reason for hospital admissions among our children. Or the reality in our care homes, where failure to even consider the teeth and mouth has seen residents left unable to eat, drink or communicate.

Beyond pain and distress, the result is a multi-million-pound burden on our NHS.

There is a way forward

Our message is simple. Prevention isn’t just better than cure, it’s cheaper.

Governments in Wales and Scotland have shown much-needed ambition, with programmes that have secured record-breaking improvements in decay rates among children.

Tooth extractions are an expensive business, and when every pound spent on supervised toothbrushing in nurseries can generate £3 back in savings, there are reasons to be ambitious.
But action cannot end in the classroom. Over 4 million adults in England alone are unable to access the NHS care they need. No patient should have reason to bottle up oral health problems, when they can so easily be nipped in the bud at routine check-ups.

The solutions aren’t rocket science, but they require a joint, concerted effort from patients, dentists and from government.

Politicians talk about prevention like it’s going out of fashion. It’s our responsibility, together, to make it a reality.

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