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UK Against Fluoridation

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Commons debate

Alistair Burt The Minister of State, Department of Health

This is possibly the fourth or fifth invitation that I have received from my hon. Friend to come to see different things in Northern Ireland, and he is right about every one. He finds in me a willing ear, and we will make a visit because there are several different things to see. Where devolved Administrations and the Department can learn from each other, that matters, and I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s offer.
In older children there are challenges when comparing different countries, because of how the surveys are carried out. The available data still show that we have among the lowest rates of dental decay in Europe, but despite that solid progress we must do more. There is disparity of experience between themajority of children who suffer little or no tooth decay, and the minority who suffer decay that is sometimes considerable and can start in early life. In this House, we know the children who I am talking about—it is a depressingly familiar case. We can picture those children as we speak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley described in the sometimes horrific parts of what he told the House. The fact that we know that such decay affects children in particular circumstances makes us weep.
Public Health England’s 2013 dental survey of three-year-olds found that of the children in England whose parents gave consent for their participation in the survey, 12% had already experienced dental decay. On average, those children had three teeth that were decayed, missing or filled. Their primary, or baby, teeth will only have just developed at that age, so it is highly distressing for the child, parents, and dental teams who need to treat them. Dental decay is the top cause of childhood admissions to hospitals in seven to nine-year-olds. In 2013-14, the total number of children admitted to hospital for extraction of decayed teeth in England was 63,196. Of those, 10,001 were nought to four-year-olds, and so would start school with missing teeth.
From April 2016, a new oral health indicator will be published in the NHS outcome framework based on the extraction of teeth in hospital in children aged 10 and under. That indicator will allow us to monitor the level of extractions, with the aim of reducing the number of children who need to be referred for extractions in the medium term. Extractions are a symptom of poor oral health, and the key is to tackle the cause of that. Today I commit that my officials will work with NHS England, Public Health England and local authorities to identify ways to reach those children most in need, and to ensure that they are able and encouraged to access high-quality preventive advice and treatment.
The good news is that the transfer of public health responsibilities to local authorities provides new opportunities for the improvement of children’s oral health. Local authorities are now statutorily obliged to provide or commission oral health promotion programmes to improve the health of the local population, to an extent that they consider appropriate in their areas. In order to support local authorities in exercising those responsibilities, Public Health England published “Local Authorities improving oral health: commissioning better oral health for children” in 2014. That document gives local authorities the latest evidence on what works to improve children’s oral health.
The commitment of the hon. Member for Nottingham North to earlyintervention and the improvement of children’s chances is noteworthy and well recognised in this House and beyond, and of course he can come to see me. I would be happy to discuss with him what he wants to promote in Nottingham, which sounds just the sort of initiative we need.
Public Health England is also addressing oral health in children as a priority as part of its “Best Start in Life” programme. That includes working with and learning from others, such as the “Childsmile” initiative in Scotland, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley referred. It is important that health visitors—I know that the Public Health Minister takes a particular interest in their work—midwives, and the wider early years workforce have access to evidence-based oral health improvement training to enable them to support families to improve oral health.
Public Health England and the Royal College of Surgeons Faculty of Dental Practice are working with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to review the dental content of the red book—the personal child health record—to provide the most up-to-date evidence-based advice and support for parents and carers. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has also produced recent oral health guidance that makes recommendations on undertaking oral health needs assessments, developing a local strategy on oral health, and delivering community-based interventions and activities for all age groups, including children. Community initiatives to improve oral health include supervised fluoride tooth-brushing schemes, fluoride varnish schemes and water fluoridation.
I agree with my hon. Friend that water fluoridation is an effective way of reducing dental decay. However, as the House knows, the matter is not in my hands. Decisions on water fluoridation are best taken locally and local authorities now have responsibility for making proposals regarding any newfluoridation schemes. I am personally in favour. I think I am the only Member in the Chamber who remembers Ivan Lawrence and the spectacular debates we had on fluoridation in the 1980s. He made one of the longest speeches ever.Fluoridation was bitterly and hard-fought-for and I do not think there is any prospect of pushing the matter through the House at present. I am perfectly convinced by the science and that is my personal view, but this is a matter that must be taken on locally.
Diet is also key to improving children’s teeth and Public Health England published “Sugar reduction: the evidence for action” in October 2015. Studies indicate that higher consumption of sugar and sugar-containing foods and drinks is associated with a greater risk of dental caries in children—no surprise there. Evidence from the report showed that a number of levers could be successful, although I agree with my hon. Friend that it is unlikely that a single action alone would be effective in reducing sugar intake.
The evidence suggests that a broad, structured approach involving restrictions on price promotions and marketing, product reformulation, portion size reduction and price increases on unhealthy products, implemented in parallel, is likely to have the biggest impact. Positive changes to the food environment, such as the public sector procuring, providing and selling healthier foods, as well as information and education, are also needed to help to support people in making healthier choices.
Dentists have a key role to play. “Delivering Better Oral Health” is an evidence-based guide to prevention in dental practice. It provides clear advice for dental teams on preventative care and interventions that could be delivered in dental practice and school settings. Regular fluoride varnish is now advised by Public Health England for all children at risk of tooth decay.
For instance, the evidence shows that twice yearly application of fluoridevarnish to children’s teeth—more often for children at risk—can have a positive impact on reducing dental decay. In 2014-15, for children, courses of treatment that included a fluoride varnish increased by 24.6% on the previous year to 3.4 million. Fluoride varnishes now equate to 30.9% of all child treatments, compared with 25.2% last year. This is encouraging progress.
There are many measures that can and should be taken in order to reduce the prevalence of decay in children, but we recognise it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate entirely the causes or the effects of poor oral health in children. This means that the continued provision of high quality NHS primary dental services will continue to be an important part of ensuring that every child in England enjoys as high a standard of oral health as possible. NHS England has a duty to commission services to improve the health of the population and reduce inequalities—this is surely an issue of inequality—and also a statutory duty to commission primary dental services to meet local need. NHS England is committed to improving commissioning of primary care dentistry within the overall vision of the “Five Year Forward View”.

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