Indigenous kids’ tooth decay rates reduced in remote north Queensland

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Indigenous dental health
A participant being examined by the research team in the library of the local primary school.

A combination of preventive treatments reduced tooth decay and improved the quality of life for more than 200 Indigenous Australian children living in remote north Queensland, a study has found.

The research—published in Plos One—is part of a larger collaborative study funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia grant awarded to Griffith University involving researchers from University of Adelaide, James Cook University and The University of Queensland.

University of Queensland School of Dentistry researcher Associate Professor Ratilal Lalloo said the intervention was especially effective in reducing severe tooth decay.

“Children who had the health preventative procedures experienced fewer instances of severe new tooth decay compared to children who didn’t receive treatment,” Dr Lalloo said.

“Access to dental services in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is extremely limited and therefore prevention of tooth decay is critical to address this significant health burden.”

Indigenous children in rural Australia have up to three times the rate of tooth decay compared to other Australian children—and among those with the most severe decay the difference is tenfold.

Study participants had existing tooth decay treated, and were also beneficiaries of a preventive program comprising dental sealants on vulnerable teeth, fluoride varnish and topical disinfectant to reduce bad and promote good bacteria.

Emeritus Professor Newell Johnson from Griffith University’s School of Dentistry and Oral Health, said the study showed the combination of topical treatments substantially improved the oral health and quality of life of the children.

“The oral health professionals fly in/fly out model we used in the study is a cost-effective way of delivering the program,” Emeritus Professor Johnson said.

“Primary health care workers such as community nurses and Aboriginal health workers can be trained to do these treatments, making them even more cost-effective.”

Children were seen every year for three years for a check-up and to receive the preventive intervention again.

Dr Lalloo said researchers hoped the findings would lead to evidence-based policies and practices in preventing tooth decay in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia.

“It is critical the consumption of easily accessible sugar-laden products such as soft drinks is reduced, [and] we encourage the Queensland Government to consider making water fluoridation mandatory, and to support remote, rural and regional local councils to implement these proven preventive measures.”

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