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Australia's oral health tracking in wrong direction - and Covid not helping

The increasing prevalence of tooth decay and gum disease among Australian adults are disturbing new trends in the nation’s oral health.


It’s a trend that’s made worse by the current pandemic, with people avoiding the dentist due to fears of proximity to others, job losses resulting in people spending less on their health and people stuck at home tucking more regularly into sugary treats.

Figures show Australian adults* are keeping their teeth for longer - but one in three of us is walking around with untreated tooth decay, while one in four has periodontal disease with periodontal pockets 4mm or deeper.

These are just some of the alarming statistics from the Adult Oral Health Tracker** progress report to be re-released for Dental Health Week next week (3-9 August 2020), the Australian Dental Association’s annual oral health campaign.

The Tracker, which sets targets for a reduction in the prevalence of these oral conditions as well as 12 other risk factors, is produced by the Australian Dental Association in collaboration with the Mitchell Institute.

“The Oral Health Tracker 2020 is a progress report that provides an update on how Australian adult oral health is tracking compared to the previous results in 2018 and against the targets set for 2025,” said the ADA’s Oral Health Promoter Dr Mikaela Chinotti.

“The results are in, and for gum disease and tooth decay, they’re not good. These conditions are largely preventable, yet they’ve increased in prevalence and we continue to get further away from our goal of improving Australia’s oral health.

“Covid-19 is only making this worse. We’re anticipating a spike in the number of tooth decay and other oral health issues to emerge once the pandemic is over.”

The findings include:

• The number of adults with untreated and potentially painful tooth decay has increased sizeably from a quarter of adults to around a third of adults (25.5% to 32.1%);

• Adults with periodontal pockets (≥4mm) which can cause tooth loss, went from 19.8% to 28.8%;

• Adults reporting toothache in the previous 12 months went up from 16.2% to 20.2%;

• Just under half (48.8%) of adults surveyed had visited a dentist for a check-up in the last 12 months, a drop of 6.7% since 2018;

• Only 53% of us are brushing twice a day;

• Australians are keeping their teeth for longer, with the number of adults with fewer than 21 teeth dropping from 15.5% to 10.2%; and

• Rates of adult oral cancers have remained almost static at 10.3 people per 100,000.

“We’ve reached our set target for the number of adults with fewer than 21 teeth. This shows that Australians are keeping their teeth for longer.

“But at the same time we’re seeing more disease. For tooth decay and gum disease we need to be targeting the causes – like poor oral hygiene and free sugar consumption, which includes added sugars, honey, syrups and fruit juice.

“For many Australians, free sugar consumption is still well above the WHO’s recommended 6 teaspoons (24 grams) a day limit and this is affecting quality of life by causing tooth decay.

“Not only do individual behaviours need to change, but so too do government policies affecting oral health,” Dr Chinotti added.

Throughout 2020 the ADA is executing a number of strategies in a bid to improve Australia’s oral health by putting a spotlight on sugar.

Measures include lobbying the government to create a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages, educating people about the harm sugar does to teeth, helping consumers better interpret food labels and understand where hidden sugars lurk.

“Given the findings, we’re asking Australians to make their oral health a priority even during the pandemic,” said Dr Chinotti.

“This includes visiting the dentist, becoming sugar savvy by understanding ways to reduce free sugar intake or making a conscious effort to brush using fluoride toothpaste twice a day in a bid to reverse the negative trends.

“Dental practices are safe places to go to – they have introduced enhanced requirements for patients including use of hand sanitisers and mouth rinse, and patients are questioned about recent travel movements. And your dentist will be wearing the full component of protective equipment, making them safe places to get your oral health needs met.”

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