A health chief has described oral health standards for Sunderland children as “appalling” following a report revealing 40 per cent of five-year-olds had tooth decay.
A survey of 141 children in Sunderland aged five in 2014/15 revealed that 40.1 per cent had tooth decay, almost double the equivalent England average of 24.8 per cent.
The shocking statistic was revealed by the city council’s director of public health, Gillian Gibson, in a report to the council’s health and wellbeing scrutiny committee this week around oral health.
The report added that the “prevalence of tooth decay” in Sunderland is significantly higher than the England average” and is the 11th highest of all upper tier local authorities.
Ms Gibson said the statistics “can only be described as appalling” and that while tooth decay is preventable, it is a “serious problem” that is linked to health inequalities.
“Although our concerns about dental health are about the whole population, we’re particularly concerned about children,” she said.
South Tyneside’s 2014/15 figures – with a sample size of 153- saw 26 per cent of five-year-olds having experienced tooth decay while County Durham saw 35.1 per cent over the same period.
Children are at risk of developing tooth decay if they’re eating a poor diet, brushing their teeth less than twice a day or are from deprived backgrounds, the report stated.
Other Sunderland survey results included 4.8 per cent five-year-olds having at least one tooth removed – compared to England average of 2.5 per cent – and 8.3 per cent having a dental abscess.
This was compared to 1.4 per cent in England, with abcesses caused by dental decay or, in some cases, traumatic injury of the teeth.
Ms Gibson said that dental colleagues were left “shocked” by the abscess statistics and that the council’s public health team are working to put an action plan in place to tackle poor oral health.
This includes an Oral Health Needs Assessment which will include further survey results from 2017 with a report expected this year.
Ms Gibson said that while the Government levy on drinks including added sugar is helping reduce tooth decay, children are still “suffering” with a whole system approach needed – including policy and awareness drives.
“It’s quite a sad picture of the oral health of our young people and really we need to think about doing more to address this,” she said.
The report added untreated decay is a major contributor to the average number of teeth affected with an average of 1.2 decayed teeth in Sunderland compared to 0.7 across England.
Twice the amount of Sunderland five-year-olds had at least one tooth extracted in 2015 over the English average.
Statistics from 2012 included in the report also revealed the wide variation of tooth decay in five-year-olds living in different parts of Sunderland.
The lowest level of tooth decay was 13.6 per in the Doxford ward while the highest levels included St Annes (53.2 percent) followed by Pallion, Millfield, Redhill and Houghton which all fell between 40 and 50 per cent.
The committee heard a potential remedy for oral health issues could be artificial water fluoridation in the Sunderland area.
The oral health report states fluoride naturally occurs in all water at around 0.1-0.2 mg/l with the optimal level to reduce the risk of tooth decay being 1.0mg/l.
The committee heard that Durham County Council has agreed to take part in a feasibility study to explore whether a fluoridation programme could be rolled out in the future.
Sunderland City Council and South Tyneside Council have been invited to take part and if approved in future, works would be carried out by Northumbrian Water and funded by councils.
Sunderland City Council is expected to pay £8.5k towards the study which is planned between May and December this year.
Ms Gibson said favourable tooth decay statistics from Hartlepool – which has naturally fluoridated water – show the health benefits of the scheme.
She added that the final decision is subject to the decisions of other councils, funding and consultation responses.
“What one authority does has an effect on another,” she said.
Scrutiny committee chairman, Darryl Dixon, said the debate about fluoridation will be discussed fully after the results of the feasibility study and “extensive consultation.”
In response to a question from Coun Ronny Davison, health chief Ms Gibson said while some areas of Sunderland have natural fluoridation, there has never been artificial fluoridation in the area.
Coun Geoff Walker also asked if there were links between schools and dentists to encourage children to go to the dentist regularly.
The health chief said that work would be done with school nurses to educate parents and encourage them to familiarise young children with dentists at an early age.
She added that a consultation into fluoridation would allow experts and the local community to give their opinions – with an independent report and public feedback expected.
Coun Dixon, closing the meeting, said an Oral Health Needs Assessment should be brought back to the committee in future alongside an item on school nurses and their role in the work programme.
Commenting on the statistics, he added: “From our point of view we’re being asked to note the contents of the report. It’s terrible to be honest.”
FACTFILE – Oral Health in Sunderland Report
In 2015/16 across England, there were 9,306 admissions for tooth extractions in children aged under five years with 7,926 of these specifically identified as being due to tooth decay.
In Sunderland, there were 29 admissions for tooth extractions for children under five with 21 identified as being due to tooth decay.
Over the same period in England, the cost of tooth extraction between the ages of 0-19 was around £50.5m – with 65 per cent linked to tooth decay.
For Sunderland, the cost of tooth extractions over the (0-19) age group was around £160k
The 2015/16 cost of tooth extraction for children aged under five across England reached £7.8m and cost around £24k in Sunderland.
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service