Oral health has been isolated from traditional healthcare and health policy for too long, despite the major global public health burden of oral diseases, according to a Lancet Series on Oral Health, published today in The Lancet. Failure of the global health community to prioritize the global burden of oral health has led to calls from Lancet Series authors for the radical reform of dental care, tightened regulation of the sugar industry, and greater transparency around conflict of interests in dental research.
Oral diseases, including tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancers, affect almost half of the global population, with untreated dental decay the most common health condition worldwide. In India, oral disorders are the most prevalent disease condition and have remained so for the past 30 years. Prevalence of oral cancer is highest in South Asian countries.
In addition to a lower quality of life, oral diseases have a major economic impact on both individuals and the wider health care system. Aggregate direct treatment costs due to dental diseases in South Asia stands at almost $12.84 Billion.
The Lancet Series on Oral Health led by University College London (UCL) researchers brought together 13 academic and clinical experts from 10 countries to better understand why oral diseases have persisted globally over the last three decades, despite scientific advancements in the field, and why prevalence has increased in low- and middle- income countries (LMIC), and among socially disadvantaged and vulnerable people, no matter where they live.
A tipping point for global oral health
ÂDentistry is in a state of crisis,Â said Professor Richard Watt, Chair and Honorary Consultant in Dental Public Health at UCL and lead author of the Series. ÂCurrent dental care and public health responses have been largely inadequate, inequitable, and costly, leaving billions of people without access to even basic oral health care. While this breakdown in the delivery of oral healthcare is not the fault of individual dental clinicians committed to caring for their patients, a fundamentally different approach is required to effectively tackle to the global burden of oral diseases.Â
In high-income countries (HIC), dentistry is increasingly technology-focused and trapped in a treatment-over-prevention cycle, failing to tackle the underlying causes of oral diseases. Oral health conditions share many of the same underlying risk factors as non-communicable diseases, such as sugar consumption, tobacco use, and harmful alcohol consumption.
In middle-income countries the burden of oral diseases is considerable, but oral care systems are often underdeveloped and unaffordable to the majority. In low-income countries the current situation is most bleak, with even basic dental care unavailable and most disease remaining untreated.
Coverage for oral health care in LMIC is vastly lower than in HIC with median estimations ranging from 35% in low-, 60% in lower-middle, 75% in upper middle, and 82% in high income countries.
Manu Raj Mathur, Head-Health Policy and Additional Professor, Public Health Foundation of India, said: ÂRecently, the Government of India announced the Ayushman Bharat Yojana or Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, which aims at strengthening Primary Health Care and providing financial protection to the most vulnerable section of the society. It is aimed at creating awareness, screening and symptomatic care for oral diseases, counselling for tobacco cessation and referral to Tobacco Cessation Centers.Â
Sugar, alcohol and tobacco industries fuel global burden
The burden of oral diseases is on course to rise, as more people are exposed to the main risk factors of oral diseases. Sugar consumption, the primary cause of tooth decay, is rising rapidly across many LMIC. While sugary drinks consumption is highest in HIC, the growth in sales of sugary drinks in many LMIC is substantial. By 2020, Coca-Cola intend to spend US$12 billion on marketing their products across Africa  in contrast to WHOÂs total annual budget of $4.4 billion (2017).
ÂThe use of clinical preventive interventions such as topical fluorides to control tooth decay is proven to be highly effective, yet because it is seen as a ÂpanaceaÂ, it can lead to many losing sight of the fact that sugar consumption remains the primary cause of disease development.Â said Watt. ÂWe need tighter regulation and legislation to restrict marketing and influence of the sugar, tobacco and alcohol industries, if we are to tackle the root causes of oral conditions.Â
Writing in a linked commentary, Cristin E Kearns of the University of California and Lisa A Bero of the University of Sydney raise additional concerns with the financial links between dental research organisations and the industries responsible for many of these risk factors.
ÂEmerging evidence of industry influence on research agendas contributes to the plausibility that major food and beverage brands could view financial relationships with dental research organisations as an opportunity to ensure a focus on commercial applications for dental caries interventionsÂeg, xylitol, oral hygiene instruction, fluoridated toothpaste, and sugar-free chewing gumÂwhile deflecting attention from harm caused by their sugary products.Â
Lancet Series authors argue a pressing need exists to develop clearer and more transparent conflict of interest policies and procedures, and to restrict and clarify the influence of the sugar industry on dental research and oral health policy.
Radical reform of dentistry needed
Lancet Series authors have called for wholesale reform of the dental care model in five key areas:
1. Close the divide between dental and general healthcare
2. Educate and train the future dental workforce with an emphasis on prevention
3. Tackle oral health inequalities through a focus on inclusivity and accessibility
4. Take a stronger policy approach to address the underlying causes of oral diseases
5. Redefine the oral health research agenda to address gaps in LMIC knowledge
Manu Raj Mathur, Head-Health Policy and Additional Professor, Public Health Foundation of India, said: ÂIndia is taking some bold steps in launching and implementing a Universal Health Coverage Programme. A new iteration of Oral Health Policy for the country is also on the anvil. The Lancet Series comes at a very crucial time for the country as it highlights the importance of oral health for overall health and well-being and presents a strong argument to include oral health care in the comprehensive primary care programme as well as covered under the national health insurance scheme.Â
Dr Jocalyn Clark, an Executive Editor at The Lancet, said: ÂDentistry is rarely thought of as a mainstream part of healthcare practice and policy, despite the centrality of the mouth and oral cavity to peopleÂs well-being and identity. A clear need exists for broader accessibility and integration of dental services into healthcare systems, especially primary care, and for oral health to have more prominence within universal health coverage commitments. Everyone who cares about global health should advocate to end the neglect of oral health.Â