Children as young as 18 months continue to suffer with rotten teeth while political parties have dodged responsibility for a proven prevention method – fluoridation of drinking water, leaders in oral health say.
At The Press Leaders Debate on Tuesday, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and National Party leader Judith Collins both said they supported fluoridating water supplies.
Dental health leaders were happy to see the leaders voice their support, but were puzzled about why the Fluoridation Amendment Bill, introduced in 2016, had not been passed already.
The bill would give district health boards (DHBs) responsibility for fluoridating community water supplies.
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Canterbury’s Māori tamariki have some of the worst rates of dental decay in the country and the Government’s lack of action over fluoridation was frustrating, the region’s Māori and Pacific health manager said.
“My response is if both National and Labour are supportive of the bill then just pass it,” Hector Matthews said.
Matthews said the bill’s failure bill to pass implied there were people within Labour and National’s caucus’ who did not support it.
“We could have had fluoride in our water three years ago and it reduces inequity, provides better oral health.”
Canterbury DHB community dental service clinical director Martin Lee said the bill’s delay made him question New Zealand’s system of government.
“For the life of me I can’t work out what the excuse is for having left that bill sitting there in the outer reaches of the order papers for three years … what was going on there?”
Māori Oral Health Quality Improvement Group chair Dr Justin Wall said the lack of action by both major parties was a form of discrimination against Māori.
The Government knew a high proportion of Māori were in lower socio-economic groups and that fluoridation was a proven and effective measure for preventing tooth decay, he said.
CDHB consultant paediatric dentist Arun Natarajan, who posed questions to the Ardern and Collins in a pre-recorded video, said he hoped the leaders would take action on the issue after the election.
In his video, Natarajan said every year 8000 children needed dental extractions that required general anaesthetic. Each operation cost $4000, meaning the country was spending $32 million on the problem each year.
”It’s not uncommon for me and my colleagues to actually take out all the teeth of 3 to 5-year-olds.”
Two recent studies from University of Canterbury researchers provided more evidence of the benefits of fluoridated water.
One study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, showed children in areas without fluoridation were more likely to be hospitalised for dental treatment.
Dental care has been a key issue of the 2020 election.
Labour has promised more dental clinics and grants for low-income and high-needs communities, and National a $30m-a-year dental policy which would provide children with a dental health pack that includes a toothbrush.
During the debate, Ardern said Labour had not been able to get support from all Coalition partners to pass the bill. Stuff understands New Zealand First declined to back it.
Collins fired back asking: “Why didn’t you ask us?”
A spokesman for Minister of Health Chris Hipkins said the bill would be carried over to the next Parliament.
During the current term, Labour asked National to support a vote on the bill, but no formal agreement was reached that would have given the Government certainty the bill would pass, the spokesman said.
Former National health spokesman Michael Woodhouse said former Health Minister David Clark asked him to provide a written agreement, but he declined as that was not the custom.
Woodhouse said he made it clear verbally that National would support the bill.