A trial of a children’s dental health program in a remote Queensland Indigenous community showed the value of simple health interventions in promoting overall health in Indigenous communities, researchers said.
Dental health is a serious problem for some Indigenous communities, with Indigenous children in rural Australia recording up to three times the rate of tooth decay compared with other Australian children.
Associate Professor Ratilal Lalloo from the University of Queensland School of Dentistry led the study to find out what effect a simple intervention could have.
“We wanted to test an intervention to reduce that burden – the idea was to take what we considered the main preventative strategies against tooth decay and see what effect that had on ongoing dental health,” he said.
The researchers compiled a group of about 600 children aged five to 17 from three schools in the area.
“We ended up with around 400 who consented to the treatments, which left around 200 which did not, so although we did not intend to, we had what you could call a natural control group built into the study,” Dr Lalloo said.
Of the 400-odd children who consented to an initial examination and treatment, about 200 then had ongoing consent for the follow-up treatments over the next three years.
The treatments consisted of having any existing tooth decay treated, followed by preventative measures including sealants, disinfectants and fluoride varnish.
Dr Lalloo said the results showed a clear benefit for the children who received the treatments.Advertisement
“The children who had the intervention had much fewer instances of new severe tooth decay compared to the children who didn’t get the intervention,” he said.
That was especially important, he said, because bad dental health could have a negative effect on overall health, including increasing the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease.
Dr Lalloo said the research was particularly gratifying because they were able to make an immediate difference in the lives of children.
“Normally in research you don’t treat existing disease, but in our case we were given funds to employ a clinical team, and the children who took part all benefited from having their tooth decay treated,” he said.
Emeritus Professor Newell Johnson from Griffith University’s School of Dentistry and Oral Health said the findings showed simple health interventions, in particular by fly-in-fly-out workers, could have exponential health benefits for remote Indigenous communities.
“The oral health professionals fly in-fly out model we used in the study is a cost-effective way of delivering the program,” Emeritus Professor Johnson said.
“Primary healthcare workers such as community nurses and Aboriginal health workers can be trained to do these treatments, making them even more cost-effective.”
Dr Lalloo said proactive measures were needed to ensure that children in remote Indigenous communities were not being left behind other Australian children.
“At the moment when we do these interventions, it’s like trying to mop up water while the tap is still on. We need to turn off the tap,” he said.
The research has been published in the journal Plos One.