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New Zealand’s oral health crisis rages on

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The state of some New Zealanders’ oral health has been compared with that of people living in war-torn countries. (Image: diplomedia/Shutterstock)
Dental Tribune International

By Dental Tribune International

Thu. 27. January 2022

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand: In New Zealand, a trip to the dentist is a significant expense for many middle-income earners and one that is put off for as long as possible. For low-income earners who struggle to pay rent and put food on the table, going to the dentist for a general check-up, let alone for any serious work, is only ever considered when the pain can no longer be tolerated. With this in mind, the current government’s decision to pause an increase in spending for dental support will continue to have a real-world impact on the quality of life for many people already navigating challenging times.

Currently, the only financial support for low-income families who need to visit the dentist is NZ$300 (€177) per year. This amount has not been increased for more than two decades, rendering it almost useless because of high dental fees. Today, based on inflation alone, that amount should be over NZ$500, and even this remains far from adequate. As reported in the New Zealand Herald, a 2019 report by the New Zealand Dental Association showed that, if the government provided NZ$900 worth of subsidies each year for the people most in need, it would break even in terms of return benefits.

Dental care in New Zealand is amongst the most expensive in the world, and in a recent survey, four in ten people said that they avoided the dentist because of cost. This leads to, among other issues, people waiting until they need emergency treatment, something that costs the government millions each year, or extracting otherwise healthy teeth that could be saved because they cannot afford the treatment. According to Consumer NZ, a restoration can cost up to NZ$220 and root canal therapy could cost a patient between NZ$800 and NZ$1,200. Anything more extensive, such as an anterior bridge, is around $3,700. Implants cost around NZ$2,800 per tooth and dentures cost NZ$2,750, so it is not just low-income earners who think twice before going to the dentist. Whereas dentists are among the top earners in New Zealand, making anywhere between NZ$140,000 and NZ$210,000 per year, the minimum wage is just NZ$20 per hour, and this disparity in wages and the increasing cost of living has led to the oral health of some New Zealanders being compared with that of people living in war-torn countries.

Although early in 2021 the current Labour government reneged on its 2020 election promise to put NZ$179 million into the dental care system, the problem cannot only be placed at its door. It is a long-running, systemic problem that has persisted through several changes of government in New Zealand and has led to people taking extreme measures to receive dental treatment.

In a 2020 Stuff article, Dr Juliet Gray, special care dentist at the Canterbury District Health Board, questioned why there was a reluctance to fund dentistry when the problem is so severe. She said: “I am not exaggerating when I say that access to timely dental care for adults is a crisis in New Zealand. People are literally having to nearly kill themselves to get access to free urgent dental care.” Dr Gray was referring to New Zealanders who cannot afford treatment on land using the potentially illegal, unregulated and often dangerous dental services on ships docked in places like Lyttelton Harbour in Christchurch.

Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year, the well-established fact that good oral health can have a significant impact on overall health is being increasingly highlighted by medical professionals. As reported in Dental Tribune International, poor oral health increases the risk of severe COVID-19 for cardiac patients. “Oral tissues could act as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, developing a high viral load in the oral cavity. Therefore, we recommended maintenance of oral health and improving oral hygiene measures, especially during COVID-19 infection,” said Dr Ahmed Mustafa Basuoni in the Dental Tribune article.

Editorial note:

The New Zealand Dental Association was contacted but declined to comment on the issue.

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