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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Great Dental Divide

Should we be worried about the state of our nation's teeth? Sanchia Berg looks into the dental health of our under 5-year-olds, in both deprived and more affluent areas.

Two pictures sum up the teeth of Britain's five year olds, according to dentists working in public health.

One is the white smile that's common in affluent parts of the country, especially the southeast, perhaps with a gap where one or two milk teeth have fallen out naturally. The other is the closed mouth of the child with rotten teeth, more often seen in the more deprived areas of Scotland, Wales and northern England.

Sometimes the teeth are black, sometimes broken, or there are gaps at the front and back where teeth have been pulled.

Overall, children's teeth have improved over the last 30 according to the national surveys of 5-year-olds. But they show an average level of decayed, missing, or filled teeth … they don't show how many children are having large numbers of teeth removed because they're so badly decayed. And while these are a very small proportion of the whole, they still number thousands.

Scottish children have a higher level of tooth decay than their English and Welsh peers.

For the Today programme, Glasgow Dental Hospital audited 8 sessions of general anaesthetics for children. Most patients were aged 5 or under. One 4-year-old had all 20 milk teeth removed.

David McColl, consultant in Dental Public Health in Glasgow, believes the audit suggests close to 2,000 children aged five or younger are having multiple extractions every year in Glasgow alone, with an average of between 7 and 8 teeth removed each time.

In parts of northern England and Wales the picture is grim too. On average every week in Sheffield Children's Hospital one young child has to have all 20 milk teeth out.

In Burnley, clinical director of the local community dental service, Hilary Whitehead, showed me some of the teeth she'd recently extracted from young children. Some were only roots (the crowns had rotted entirely away). Others were grey with decay.

She almost cried as she told me about the worst case she'd seen. "One particular day there were two children, both of whom were just slightly over the age of two, but they were very tiny children they were just babies really it was just awful,” she recalled.

“I think one of them had 8 teeth out and the other one had 6. They'd come to the clinics because they had abscesses on their teeth and they were suffering."

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