Northumberland has the highest rate in the North East of children under four being admitted to hospital for tooth decay, as well as the highest rate of general anaesthetics for this issue.
The statistics for the county do reveal positives too; the 2017 Oral Health Survey shows that 77.4 per cent of five-year-olds in the county were free from obvious dental decay – higher than the England and regional averages and an increase from 61.2 per cent 10 years before.
Five-year-olds in Northumberland also have an average of 0.64 teeth that are decayed, missing or filled, which is lower than the England average and in the lowest third of local authorities in the region.
However, a similar survey of 12-year-olds identified that this value was 1.2, the highest number in the North East and significantly higher than the England average. Only 54.9 per cent of children this age were free from decay.
These figures all come from Northumberland’s Oral Health Strategy and Action Plan for 2019-2022, which aims to tackle these issues as well as the inequalities whereby the standard of oral health is generally poorer in more deprived areas.
There are also geographic inequalities across the county, with a report showing less than 40 per cent of the populations of Amble and Wooler accessing a dentist compared to 68 per cent in Hexham West.
The strategy features four priority areas – giving every child the best start in life and best opportunities for oral health; improving the oral health of older people; service development and commissioning; and partnership working – backed by 14 action points.
But members of Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing board, which discussed the plan at its meeting on Thursday (March 14), were particularly keen to push for further fluoridation of the county’s water supply.
In the North East, the lowest rates of dental decay in children are found in areas with fluoridated water, whether natural or artificial, because while a lack of it does not cause decay, fluoride increases the tooth’s resistance against the effects of frequently consumed sugar.
A Public Health England study also showed that every £1 invested in water fluoridation brings a £12.71 return after five years, far higher than other programmes like fluoride varnishing or posting/handing out toothbrushes and toothpaste.
In Northumberland, only 43 per cent of people have fluoridated water, but the process for introducing it in other areas is complex and requires approval from the Secretary of State.
Following previous backing by the board for further fluoridation though, the council’s director of public health is now awaiting the final version of a feasibility study from Northumbrian Water.
Board members were also keen to carry out a publicity campaign around oral health, following comments by Coun Wayne Daley, who said that the message that dental treatment is free for people on benefits and for all children isn’t getting out enough.
The report and presentation underlined that improving oral health is an important issue and certainly isn’t just a case of having nice white teeth.
It is defined as ‘a standard of the oral and related tissues which enables an individual to eat, speak and socialise without active disease, discomfort or embarrassment and which contributes to general wellbeing’.
It is also a marker for wider health and wellbeing issues, given the risk factors such as an unhealthy diet, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption are shared with conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service