As we know, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a huge disparity in health outcomes compared to non-Indigenous Australians. In fact, the Department of Health highlights that the burden of disease for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 2.3 times that of non-Indigenous Australians.
When it comes to oral health, almost half of Indigenous children have at least one baby tooth with a cavity compared to about a quarter of non-Indigenous children, and Indigenous children in some areas have five times the prevalence of dental disease compared to non-Indigenous children. But what risks and factors contribute to these disparities?
To look at this question, researchers used data from the National Child Oral Health Study 2012-2014 (NCOHS), which is a cross-sectional survey of Australian kids between the ages of 5 and 14. The detailed survey included about 1500 Indigenous children and 30,000 non-Indigenous children, and involves dental examinations of those kids surveyed, questionnaires for their parents, and collection of all data for later analysis. The main outcome they were interested in was the number of tooth surfaces with untreated decay.
The researchers found that at the broadest level, the drivers of tooth decay were similar between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children: sugary drink consumption, household income and living in an area where the water is fluoridated. But digging deeper, there were also differences, and the proportion each risk factor contributed varied between these groups. In particular, toothbrushing frequency was more of a contributing factor for Indigenous children and time of last dental visit was more of a factor for non-Indigenous children.
The authors say these are important findings in understanding the disparity in dental cavities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. It’s not just about socioeconomic circumstance, but also varied social and cultural factors that leave dental caries to go untreated. They provide targets for future interventions in dental care.