More than 6600 Kiwi kids admitted to hospital with rotten teeth in one year
More than 6600 children under 12 wound up in hospital in the 2015-16 year to have one or more rotten teeth pulled under general anaesthetic.
After respiratory conditions, dental treatments were the second-biggest cause of hospital admissions that year, the latest for which figures are available. The rate was highest among under-10s.
The deteriorating state of our children's teeth is being called a slow-burning health epidemic, mainly caused by sugary drinks, and is costing the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars.
Pulling kids' teeth cost $14.7 million during the year to June 2016. Ministry of Health oral health national clinical director Riana Clarke said the total cost of all hospital dental services over the period was nearly $46m.
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Latest figures from the ministry's annual health survey 2015-16 show 29,000 children aged under 15 had teeth removed due to decay, abscess, infection or gum disease over the year, while 89,000 children had a tooth removed at some point before they were 15.
Anti-sugar lobbyist and dentist Rob Beaglehole said the number of extractions for kids was alarming.
"It's heartbreaking taking teeth out of such young children, particularly because of the pain and suffering, he said.
"It's totally preventable. The number one reason children have their teeth taken out is because of a high sugar diet, especially sugary drinks.
A 4-year-old Auckland girl who had been drinking fizzy drinks from a sipper bottle had all her teeth removed under general anesthetic in hospital at a cost of about $4000, he said.
Losing baby teeth at that age could cause persistent orthodontic problems, as well as social issues for children.
"It can cause ongoing complications, expensive orthodontic treatment, and can knock children's confidence. They can have difficulty speaking, interacting and socialising with other children – it's a severe disfigurement."
Population nutrition professor Boyd Swinburn has called for a tax on sugary drinks and said dental problems – alongside childhood obesity and diabetes – were often unnoticed, but the costs of inaction were huge.
"People don't see the scale of the problem, and it's enormous. Oral health is often overlooked but dental care is one of the most expensive things we treat and all this stuff is totally preventable."
The problem was "absolutely a crisis" but a slow-burning one, he said.
New Zealand adults and children are the third most overweight and obese among OECD countries. Swinburn said the related costs were probably close to $1 billion a year.
Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said oral health was generally improving, with more children recorded as caries-free than ever before.
"What we are seeing is not a health crisis, but more people being identified and getting treatment. While it is disappointing to see children with this level of decay and discomfort, it is pleasing to see that they are getting the help needed."
The Government's decision to shift responsibility for decisions on fluoridating water supplies to district health boards would also have a long-term positive effect on oral health, he said.
Dunne did not support a sugar tax, but said if clear evidence emerged showing a tax would make a "tangible" difference to the health of Kiwis, rather than being used as a "revenue-gathering exercise in disguise", he would be open to it.
HOW TO KEEP KIDS' TEETH HEALTHY
* Brushing their teeth twice a day with regular-strength fluoride toothpaste
* Ensure they eat a healthy, low-sugar diet
* Ensure regular dental check-ups from an early age. Children's teeth are at risk of tooth decay as soon as they appear, usually at the age of six months.