Call for ban on all juices and soft drinks in schools as 29,000 kids' teeth pulled in a year
Four out of every 10 new-entrant children are starting school with tooth decay, as 29,000 children needed teeth extracted in a single year.
The latest available figures from the Ministry of Health have led the New Zealand Dental Association to call for all schools to offer only water or plain, reduced-fat milk to pupils.
The call has been backed by the Ministry of Education, which says schools that have cut sugary drinks, including fruit juice, "have seen that it benefits teaching and learning as well as student health and wellbeing".
Yet only one in 10 schools have so far introduced the measure, the Dental Association says.
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Dentist Rob Beaglehole, spokesman for the association, said children having to undergo dental surgery was the No 1 reason for childhood general anaesthetics in New Zealand.
"Tooth decay is a canary in the coalmine, in terms of the damage it is doing in the rest of the body."
As well as health issues such as type 2 diabetes, children with teeth that needed pulling usually suffered for weeks before surgery. "For all the teeth that are being taken out, there is a lot of pain and suffering out there."
Baby teeth that were removed early could lead to adult teeth coming through in the wrong place, leading to complicated orthodontic surgery later in life.
Kathryn Fuge, clinical director of the Bee Healthy regional dental service, which visits schools, said latest figures showed 40 per cent of 5-year-olds had some form of decay, and there were no signs of the problem improving.
That decay, if caught early, could be treated easily through standard home routines such as parents brushing their children's teeth for two minutes, twice daily, and children drinking water when they were thirsty.
If not treated, decay could lead to pain, loss of sleep and the eventual need for fillings or more drastic surgery.
According to the Ministry of Health's New Zealand Health Survey, for 2014-15 year, people were asked it they had a tooth removed during the year due to tooth decay, an abscess, infection or gum disease.
A total of 274,000 adults had teeth pulled out. That was 8 per cent of the total adult population, with Pacific Island adults' rate at 13 per cent, and Maori at 10 per cent.
For children, aged between one and 14, 29,000 – or 3 per cent of the population – had teeth removed because of decay, abscess or infection. Again, Maori and Pacific Island rates were higher, at 5 per cent.
Beaglehole said schools needed to take more responsibility for teaching pupils dental hygiene, as well as general health.
"Fruit juice is just as bad or even worse, because there is more sugar in juice than even Pepsi or Coke," he said.
As well as sugar, juice and soft drinks contained acids that harmed teeth.
SCHOOLS CAN'T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR EVERYTHING
School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said teaching oral health was not a burden that should be shouldered by schools, important though it was for society.
"A school's absolute responsibility is about teaching and learning, but somehow or another all of society's woes wind up the responsibility of the school and the board," she said.
"These children belong to someone – and they belong to society – and school is only part of society."
Principals' Council Wellington region representative John Russell, who is principal of Naenae College, said the oral health message was crucial, but needed to be tackled on a much wider basis than just schools.
"Schools can't be the sole voice for society on these things."
He said the council would support any water-only legislation that would free up schools to implement the policy.
Associate health minister Peter Dunne strongly supported schools making water more easily accessible, but said school boards and administrators needed to make their own decisions.
There was also a strong element of parental responsibility. He was "not opposed" to schools taking more responsibility for oral hygiene, but said it "should be happening at the dentist".
BY THE NUMBERS
* 29,000 children needed teeth extracted in 2014-15
* 274,000 adults had teeth pulled out
* 40 per cent of new-entrant children start school with tooth decay
* Overall 8 per cent of adults had teeth pulled. Pacific Island rates were 13 per cent, and Maori 10 per cent