Oral health is fundamental to general health and well-being. Poor oral health affects quality of life as a result of pain or discomfort, tooth loss, impaired oral functioning, disfigurement, missing school time, loss of work hours and sometimes even death.
Oral diseases are among the highest prevalent health conditions in the world.
The 2015 Global Burden of Disease Study estimated that oral diseases and conditions
(untreated tooth decay, severe periodontitis, and tooth loss) affect 3.5 billion people worldwide.2
Disability adjusted life-years due to oral conditions increased by 64% from 10.3 to 16.9 million between 1990 and 2015.2
The WHO has declared oral disease as a critical public-health problem (alongside alcohol, health and nutrition of children, food safety, tobacco use).
Oral disease is the fourth most expensive of all diseases to treat.3
Tooth decay (also called dental caries or cavities), is considered to be the most widespread of all health conditions. Nearly 100% of adults, and 60-90% of school children, have cavities.4
Untreated caries in adult teeth was the most prevalent of all medical conditions evaluated across the entire Global Burden of Disease Study, with a global prevalence of 35%. Untreated caries in children ranked the 10th most prevalent medical condition.2
Tooth decay is the result of our diets changing faster than the evolution of our bodies and microbiome to adjust for the dietary transformation.
Free sugars are the crucial dietary factor in the development of dental caries – dental caries does not occur in the absence of dietary sugars. Dental caries develops when bacteria in the mouth metabolize sugars to produce acid that demineralizes the hard tissues of the teeth. Free sugars include all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice. Confectionery, cakes, biscuits, sweetened cereals, sweet desserts, sucrose, honey, syrups and preserves are common sources of free sugars. In many countries, sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit-based and milk-based sweetened drinks and 100% fruit juices, are a primary source of free sugars. Unlike whole fresh fruits, fruit juices contain free sugars and also contain more calories. Importantly, chewing whole fresh fruit stimulates salivary flow that protects against demineralization of tooth substance.5
Dental caries can be prevented by avoiding dietary free sugars. Moreover, dental caries is largely preventable through simple and cost-effective population-wide and individual interventions. On the other hand, restorative treatment is costly, and is often unavailable in low- and middle-income countries. In low-income countries, the majority of dental caries goes untreated. Teeth affected by caries are often extracted (pulled out) when they cause pain or discomfort.5
Severe dental caries can impair quality of life. For example, dental caries may cause difficulties in eating and sleeping, and in its advanced stages (abscesses), it may result in pain, swelling and chronic systemic infection. Dental caries is also associated with adverse growth patterns. Further, tooth decay is a frequent cause of absence from school or work.5
Other Oral Conditions
Other preventable oral conditions (apart from tooth decay) that we address include:
Noma – a gangrenous lesion that affects young children living in extreme poverty primarily in Africa and Asia. Lesions are severe gingival disease followed by necrosis (premature death of cells in living tissue) of lips and chin. Many children affected by noma suffer from other infections such as measles and HIV. Without any treatment, about 90% of these children die.4
Tooth loss – loss of teeth can have a serious impact on an individual’s ability to properly chew their food, digest and eat a healthy diet, which in turn, contributes to further loss of gum and bone tissue. Loss of front teeth in particular leads to lack of confidence and smiling and can impair psychological and social development.4
Oral cancer – the incidence of oral cancer ranges from 1 to 10 cases per 100 000 people in most countries. The prevalence of oral cancer is relatively higher in men, older people, and among people of low education and low income. Tobacco and alcohol are major causal factors.4
Oro-dental trauma – across the world, 16-40% of children in the age range 6 to 12 years are affected by dental trauma due to unsafe playgrounds, unsafe schools, road accidents, or violence.4
Oral diseases have many of the same social and behavioural risk factors as other non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Unhealthy diets are associated with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes, many cancers and dental caries.6
Tobacco use, for example, is linked to periodontal disease, tooth loss, and 90 % of all lung cancers.6
(Our own project in the Kalwa slums of Mumbai revealed a surprising link between tobacco and oral health – the use of chewing-tobacco (gul) to brush their teeth twice a day and as a remedy for toothache, gum infections bad breath).7
In other words, oral disease shares risk factors for the four leading chronic diseases – cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes – and oral diseases are often linked to chronic diseases.
The “common risk factor approach” (CRFA) to oral health promotion addresses risk factors shared with NCDs within the broader social and economic environment, while highlighting the importance of the mouth-body connection for overall health and well-being.
Focusing on the common determinants of health, community participation, partnerships with other sectors, healthy public policies and reducing health inequalities and inequities is the way to achieve improvements in oral and overall health.
What problems could poor oral health cause?
With one billion people on the move or having moved in 20188, migration and global health are both defining issues of our time. In recent decades, people have suffered from conflicts, climate change, urbanization, and economic challenges, to name only a few. Some people decided to flee from these disasters, while others decided to stay. Regardless of their choices, people around the world are facing huge challenges in their lives, particularly regarding their living conditions.
29% of the world’s population does not have access to clean water
11% suffer from malnutrition
50% has no access to basic healthcare
Living in these challenging contexts puts pressures on people especially those that are living in remote areas or that were forced to migrate. Each community has its unique challenges.
Often rural family members are separated in the quest for work in the cities. In some places HIV/AIDS has ravaged family integrity. These pressures affect the health of communities, especially among school-aged children. As a consequence, many of these children find themselves in a downward spiral in their health which began with a poor oral health status.
One of the most promising measures to address health inequities is access to health care through universal health coverage. Universal health coverage (UHC) means that all people and communities can use the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.9 UHC cuts across all of the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and brings hope of better health and protection for the world’s poorest.
Significant barriers exist to ensuring people receive basic healthcare, and this is especially so with oral healthcare. Amongst these barriers are ignorance, inadequate financial resources and lack of adequate numbers of educated and trained healthcare workers. This, together with insufficient emphasis on primary prevention of oral diseases, poses a considerable challenge for several countries, particularly developing countries and countries with economies and health systems in transition.10
Despite the remarkable advancements in dentistry, millions of people around the world are excluded from scientific and technological developments. This unequal access to basic oral health care and policies is directly reflected in health problems, especially among school-aged children. The greatest burden of oral diseases lies on disadvantaged and poor populations.
Global inequalities in oral health, both between and within different regions and societies, undermine the fabric, productivity and quality of life of many of the worlds’ people.
Humble Smile Foundation takes these global and local challenges as an opportunity to invest in healthy lives. Investing in children and their communities, means positively contributing to a sustainable and healthy world. Furthermore, we believe the dental profession should play a leading role in a global movement to reduce social inequities and optimise health through good oral health “by shifting the focus from (i) a traditionally curative, mostly pathogenic model to a more salutogenic approach, which concentrates on prevention and promotion of good oral health and (ii) from a rather exclusive to a more inclusive approach, which takes into consideration all the stakeholders who can participate in improving the oral health of the public.”11
To move forward as Dental Public Health professionals, we must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge three major concerns in the current culture of dental care on a global level:
Inequitable distribution – where there is no money there is no dentistry
Dental care has had little direct impact on disease
Dentistry introspectively develops complex and expensive clinical, technological and restorative practices to address simple oral health issues.
The current pattern of common oral diseases reflects distinct risk profiles across countries related to:
implementation of schemes to prevent oral diseases
This is why Humble Smile has adopted an evidence-based, preventive and holistic approach that is culturally sensitive and politically aligned with each community according to its particular needs.
2. Kassebaum NJ, Smith AGC, Bernabe E, Fleming TD, Reynolds AE, Vos T, et al. Global, regional, and National Prevalence, incidence, and disability-adjusted life years for oral conditions for 195 countries, 1990-2015: a systematic analysis for the global burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. J Dent Res. 2017;96(4):380–7
6. Sheiham A, Alexander D, Cohen L, Marinho V, Moyses S, Petersen PE, Spencer J, Watt RG, Weyant R. Global oral health inequalities: task group–implementation and delivery of oral health strategies. Adv Dent Res. 2011;23(2):259-67.
7. Devi A et al. Gabriel Smiles Project Needs Assessment. Internal document, Humble Smile Foundation, August 2018.
8. The UCL–Lancet Commission on Migration and Health: the health of a world on the move. Lancet Dec, 2018; 392: 2606–54