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New WHO report unveils alarming state of global oral health

A recent report released by World Health Organization highlights the worrying state of oral care and serves as a call for political action for improving oral health worldwide. (Image: Oakland Images/Shutterstock)

GENEVA, Switzerland: The World Health Organization (WHO) published the latest Global Oral Health Status Report on 18 November, almost 20 years after its last publication. The document provides a comprehensive picture of oral disease prevalence and includes data profiles for 194 countries. The report is valuable both to policymakers and stakeholders who wish to take action to promote good oral health and access to dental care in their respective countries or regions.

The oral health profiles are based on the latest available data from the Global Burden of Disease project, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and global WHO surveys. According to the data collected, approximately half of the world’s population, that is, 3.5 billion people, suffer from oral disease, and three out of every four affected people live in low- and middle-income countries. Additionally, it shows that the global oral disease burden is even higher than that of non-communicable diseases such as mental disorders, diabetes and cancer and has grown substantially over the last 30 years owing to limited access to prevention and treatment of oral disease.

“Oral health has long been neglected in global health, but many oral diseases can be prevented and treated with the cost-effective measures outlined in this report,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said in a press release. “WHO is committed to providing guidance and support to countries so that all people, wherever they live and whatever their income, have the knowledge and tools needed to look after their teeth and mouths, and to access services for prevention and care when they need them.”

According to the report, dental caries, severe periodontitis, tooth loss and oral cancers are among the most common oral diseases. Data shows that untreated dental caries affects an estimated 2.5 billion people and is the most common condition globally, and severe periodontitis is estimated to affect one billion people worldwide. A staggering 380,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed every year.

“Oral health has long been neglected in global health.”
— Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO

Furthermore, the report found great disparities in access to oral health services and concluded that oral diseases and conditions significantly affect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, namely people living on low incomes, people living with disabilities, older people living alone or in care homes, people living in remote and rural communities, and people from minority groups. High sugar intake, all forms of tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol are all factors that contribute to the global oral health crisis.

Finally, the report showed that only a small percentage of the global population is covered by essential oral health services and that those with the greatest oral care needs often have the least access to services. The key barriers to delivering access to oral health services include high out-of-pocket costs, reliance on highly specialised providers, and ineffective oral health interventions and policies.

Besides outlining hindrances to delivering oral care, the report highlighted various facilitators for improving the state of global oral health. These include addressing common risk factors through a public health approach; integrating oral health into national health and making it universal; redefining oral health workforce models; and strengthening oral healthcare systems, including collecting and integrating oral health data into national health monitoring systems.

“Placing people at the heart of oral health services is critical if we are to achieve the vision of universal health coverage for all individuals and communities by 2030,” Dr Bente Mikkelsen, WHO director for noncommunicable diseases, noted. “This report acts as a starting point by providing baseline information to help countries monitor progress of implementation, while also providing timely and relevant feedback to decision makers at the national level. Together, we can change the current situation of oral health neglect,” she concluded.

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