Baroness Benjamin: 'We are now facing a major crisis' in child dental health

Posted On: 
10th June 2016

Lib Dem peer, Floella Benjamin, says too many British children are suffering from tooth decay.

Ten years ago, as I sat in my dentist chair for one of my regular check-ups, my dentist said to me, ‘Floella you always speak up on issues concerning children, please highlight the impending catastrophe of children’s oral health, because I now have patients as young as five with tooth decay, there is a time bomb ticking if something is not done about it’.

How right he was, we are now facing a major crisis. Shocking reports from the Local Government Association, Royal College of Surgeons and the British Dental Association, warns thousands of children are being admitted to hospital to have teeth removed because of advanced decay which is costing the NHS millions. Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show increased numbers in four successive years and the rate of painful tooth extraction among the most deprived children is almost five times that of better off communities. Poor oral health can affect children's ability to sleep, eat, speak and socialise with other children. Not to mention the effect on their education as they have to take time off school to be treated in hospital.

Many young children have teeth extracted under general anaesthesia because of dental decay. In London alone, 8,362 children were admitted to hospital for tooth extraction which is the number one reason why children aged five to nine are admitted. Yet 90% of tooth decay is preventable through reducing sugar consumption, regular brushing and adequate exposure to fluoride.

I remember lining up at school for the nurse to examine my teeth to make sure they were healthy. Perhaps this needs to happen across the country again?

Oral health is an integral part of overall health. When children are not healthy, this affects their ability to learn, thrive and develop. Later on poor dental health can impact on a person’s ability to find a decent job or hold back career progress. Being embarrassed by bad teeth may affect their confidence during interviews which can affect their mental wellbeing.

I am aware the Department of Health is keen to address the issue and proposes to pay dentists to keep children’s teeth healthy instead of just dealing with problems as they arise. But 40% of children do not set foot in a dentist’s surgery to take advantage of it. A five year old child cannot take itself to the dentist! But a parent or carer can and maintain a regime that will give their children teeth for life.

I was thrilled to hear that during the British Dental Conference last month Alistair Burt MP announced new preventive programmes to improve children’s dental health in areas of highest deprivation. This is welcome news but we should remain cautious as we have no details of where they will be located, how they would work or where the funding would come from has been revealed. Perhaps revenue from the sugar tax should be used for this preventive programme along with other obesity initiatives.

We all need to work together to find a holistic approach, rolling out strategies and partnerships, working to make hard-to-reach families understand the importance of tooth care.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit & Healthy Childhood, which I co-chair has highlighted this crisis in our reports which we have shared with government. We conclude that pre-natal care, midwives, local councils, health professionals, business and government all have a role to play in addressing these avoidable inequalities.

As the Minister said to my Oral Question on the government's oral health strategies, solutions to the problem will be addressed in the National Obesity Strategy...let's hope our children will not be let down.

The Baroness Benjamin OBE is a Liberal Democrat peer