Pause on Childsmile initiative is putting most deprived at risk of tooth decay

Dentists are warning that inequalities will widen without clear commitment from the government after research has revealed that Primary 1 children from the most deprived communities in Scotland experience more than four times the level of tooth decay than their more affluent counterparts.

The British Dental Association Scotland says decades of progress on children’s dental health risks going into reverse as COVID pushes unacceptable inequalities to new levels.

The latest report of the National Dental Inspection Programme shows that Primary 1 children from the most deprived communities experience more than four times the level of tooth decay compared to their counterparts in the least deprived areas (1.78 versus 0.40 decayed, missing or filled teeth per child). 

In school year 2019/20, 74% of Primary 1 children were free from tooth decay – that’s up 3 percentage points (from 71%) from the last report in 2018 and up 28 percentage points (from 45%) since the programme started in 2002/03. These figures also show that the average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth per child reduced from 2.76 in 2002/03 to 1.04 in 2019/20.

But the BDA has warned that stark and persistent inequalities will widen as a result of the pandemic, given the collapse in access to routine services, the suspension of public health programmes and the impact of sugar-rich lockdown diets.

The pioneering Childsmile programme has been paused since Scotland first entered lockdown in March. The Childsmile Executive group has been working on a remobilisation plan but timings will depend on levels of COVID-19 in the community.

While NHS practices will be permitted to perform a full range of treatment from 1 November, practices will be operating at a fraction of their former capacity.

It’s anticipated the reintroduction of the pre-COVID funding model for dentistry will decimate NHS practices, in light of ongoing restrictions, higher costs and reduced patient numbers. GPs in Scotland are still being funded to pre-pandemic level.  

Robert Donald, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Scottish Council, said: “COVID risks undoing decades of progress in improving the dental health of our children. 

“Dentistry in Scotland is at a turning point. Routine check-ups remain off the cards for most families, our public health programmes are struggling, and high street practices face a deeply uncertain future.

“The oral health gap between rich and poor – which has proved so stubborn – will widen unless we see real commitment from the Scottish Government.”

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Lynda Hamilton Parker is a Scottish PR expert and independent publisher

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