Australia's oral health getting worse ... and COVID is not helping

31 July 2020

The increasing prevalence of tooth decay and gum disease among Australian adults are disturbing new trends in the nation’s oral health.

It’s a trend that’s made worse by the current pandemic, with people avoiding the dentist due to fears of proximity to others, job losses resulting in people spending less on their health and people stuck at home tucking more regularly into sugary treats.

Figures show Australian adults* are keeping their teeth for longer - but one in three of us is walking around with untreated tooth decay, while one in four has periodontal disease with periodontal pockets 4mm or deeper.

These are just some of the alarming statistics from the Adult Oral Health Tracker** progress report to be re-released for Dental Health Week next week (3-9 August 2020), the Australian Dental Association’s annual oral health campaign.

The Tracker, which sets targets for a reduction in the prevalence of these oral conditions as well as 12 other risk factors, is produced by the Australian Dental Association in collaboration with the Mitchell Institute.

“The Oral Health Tracker 2020 is a progress report that provides an update on how Australian adult oral health is tracking compared to the previous results in 2018 and against the targets set for 2025,” said the ADA’s Oral Health Promoter Dr Mikaela Chinotti.

“The results are in, and for gum disease and tooth decay, they’re not good. These conditions are largely preventable, yet they’ve increased in prevalence and we continue to get further away from our goal of improving Australia’s oral health.

“Covid-19 is only making this worse. We’re anticipating a spike in the number of tooth decay and other oral health issues to emerge once the pandemic is over.”

The findings include:

- The number of adults with untreated and potentially painful tooth decay has increased sizeably from a quarter of adults to around a third of adults (25.5% to 32.1%);
- Adults with periodontal pockets (≥4mm) which can cause tooth loss, went from 19.8% to 28.8%;
 -Adults reporting toothache in the previous 12 months went up from 16.2% to 20.2%;
- Just under half (48.8%) of adults surveyed had visited a dentist for a check-up in the last 12 months, a drop of 6.7% since 2018;
- Only 53% of us are brushing twice a day;
- Australians are keeping their teeth for longer, with the number of adults with fewer than 21 teeth dropping from 15.5% to 10.2%; and
- Rates of adult oral cancers have remained almost static at 10.3 people per 100,000.

“We’ve reached our set target for the number of adults with fewer than 21 teeth. This shows that Australians are keeping their teeth for longer.

“But at the same time we’re seeing more disease. For tooth decay and gum disease we need to be targeting the causes – like poor oral hygiene and free sugar consumption, which includes added sugars, honey, syrups and fruit juice.

“For many Australians, free sugar consumption is still well above the WHO’s recommended 6 teaspoons (24 grams) a day limit and this is affecting quality of life by causing tooth decay.

“Not only do individual behaviours need to change, but so too do government policies affecting oral health,” Dr Chinotti added.

Throughout 2020 the ADA is executing a number of strategies in a bid to improve Australia’s oral health by putting a spotlight on sugar.

Measures include lobbying the government to create a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages, educating people about the harm sugar does to teeth, helping consumers better interpret food labels and understand where hidden sugars lurk.

“Given the findings, we’re asking Australians to make their oral health a priority even during the pandemic,” said Dr Chinotti. “This includes visiting the dentist, becoming sugar savvy by understanding ways to reduce free sugar intake or making a conscious effort to brush using fluoride toothpaste twice a day in a bid to reverse the negative trends.

“Dental practices are safe places to go to – they have introduced enhanced requirements for patients including use of hand sanitisers and mouth rinse, and patients are questioned about recent travel movements. And your dentist will be wearing the full component of protective equipment, making them safe places to get your oral health needs met.”
Download a range of DHW assets for use on your website or publication including five sugar fact sheets, four videos, spokesperson pic and Oral Health Tracker document from the Australian Dental Association share file here.

For Editors:

*Adults: the data is drawn from a variety of sources each with its own definition of an adult, ranging from over 14, to over 15, to 18 and over.

** The Oral Health Tracker is a report card on preventable oral diseases and their risk factors which tracks the nation’s progress for a healthier Australia by 2025. In 2018, ADA in conjunction with the Mitchel Institute (formerly the AHPC) developed the Australian Oral Health Tracker, a report card that looks at 14 oral health risk factors and sets targets for these factors to reach by 2025. The inaugural report card was released on World Oral Health Day 2018. It was the first of its kind globally and placed Australia as the first country in the world to have established clear and measurable oral health targets for child and adult populations.

The data in the 2020 Tracker comes from a range of sources including the ADA’s Consumer Survey 2019, NSAOH (National Study of Adult Oral Health 17/18), National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016 and Cancer in Australia 2019. Where possible, the 2020 includes updated statistics reported in the first edition of the Adult Oral Health Tracker.
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