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Global health systems neglect treating three billion people with tooth decay

Billions of people across the globe are suffering the consequences of untreated tooth decay (cavities) – which include toothache and dental abscesses – according to new research published in the Journal of Dental Research.

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Professor Wagner Marcenes of Queen Mary University of London led the Oral Health Research Group within the latest Global Burden of Disease study (GBD study), which found 2.4 billion people worldwide (35 per cent of population) have untreated tooth decay in their permanent teeth, and 621 million children have untreated tooth decay in their milk teeth.

The researchers estimate over 190 million new cases of tooth decay in adults will develop annually worldwide. In addition, the findings show tooth decay treatment has been neglected even in high income countries, with one in three people in the UK suffering the consequences of lack of tooth decay treatment, along with one in five in the USA.

The research involved a systematic review of all data on untreated dental decay, leading to a comprehensive report on rates of tooth decay for all countries, age groups and genders from 1990 and 2010. The team analysed 192 studies of 1.5 million children aged 1 to 14 years old, across 74 countries, and 186 studies of 3.2 million people aged 5 years or older, across 67 countries.  

Professor Wagner Marcenes, Lead Author of the research at Queen Mary University of London, comments: “Our report is a startling reminder of the vital need to develop effective oral health promotion strategies. It is alarming to see prevention and treatment of tooth decay has been neglected at this level because if left untreated it can cause severe pain, mouth infection and it can negatively impact children’s growth.

Tooth decay is a significant economic burden. It is the fourth most expensive chronic disease to treat, and if left untreated, it leads to poor productivity at work and absenteeism in adults and poor school attendance and performance in children.

Professor Marcenes continues: “We have seen a clear shift in the burden of tooth decay from children to adults. The current perception that low levels of decay in childhood will continue throughout life seems incorrect.

“The fact that a preventable oral disease like tooth decay is the most prevalent of all diseases and injuries examined in our report is quite disturbing and should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers to increase their focus on the importance of dental health. Extending oral health promotion activities to the work environment is necessary to maintain good oral health to reduce the major biological, social and financial burden on individuals and healthcare systems.”

The findings also highlight the enormous public health challenge posed by dietary habits. Eating and drinking high amounts of sugary foods and drinks, and frequent snacking can cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity and diabetes.

The study, Global Burden of Oral Conditions 1990-2010: A Systematic Analysis, was led by Professor Marcenes, with colleagues at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the University of Queensland, Australia.  

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