Garth George: Non-watered down 'yes' to fluoride

By Garth George

The recommendation of the parliamentary health committee released last week - to invest in a nationwide oral health campaign and transfer responsibility for fluoride additives to Ministry of Health and district health boards - is the only one of several likely to have immediate and measurable benefits for many of the nation's children.

Taking the responsibility for supplying fluoridated water supplies out of the hands of local body politicians - who invariably panic when faced with vociferous minority views or whimper the moment the subject is raised - is the way to go.

It is certainly to be hoped that within the next couple of years more water supplies will be fluoridated - particularly those of Tauranga and Rotorua.

In fact, with Steve Chadwick, a former associate minister of health, as its new mayor, Rotorua should be enthusiastically approaching the health authorities already and demanding fluoridation.

In its comprehensive special report on improving children's health outcomes, the committee says oral disease is among the most prevalent chronic diseases in New Zealand and among the most preventable in all age groups.

"We heard that oral diseases and their consequences, such as embarrassment, pain, and self-consciousness, can have a profound effect on a person's quality of life and ability to gain employment ...

"Caries can also affect children's development, school performance, and behaviour, and thus families and society in general. Promoting good oral health benefits children of all ages."

Even more reason for Tauranga and Rotorua to fluoridate their water supplies quickly is that the committee reported that the 2009 New Zealand Oral Health Survey found Maori children had poor access to oral health services and worse oral health outcomes among children living in areas of high socio-economic deprivation.

The committee says that children appear to have better oral health in areas with a fluoridated water supply, with a higher caries-free rate and a lower average number of decayed, missing or filled teeth in all three ethnic groups, and in all age groups.

"The scientific evidence was clear that when fluoride is added to the water supply in appropriate monitored doses there is a reduction of dental caries in children, particularly children living in low socio-economic families."

The committee recommends to the Government that it work with local government and the Ministry of Health to make district health boards responsible for setting standards around water-quality monitoring and adjustments to meet World Health Organisation standards, including the optimal level of fluoridation of water supplies.

"This should be implemented within two years of this report being published," the report said.

Let's hope it is - or even sooner preferably.

Another important recommendation of the committee is that strong warning labels be placed on all beer, wine and spirits as part of a plan to stop pregnant mothers from drinking. It urges the liquor industry to place "unequivocal" warnings on its products.

It is one of a series of recommendations designed to reduce the rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The inquiry said data on alcohol-related disorders in pregnancy was limited, but as many as 3000 babies a year could be born with one.

While major alcohol-related defects in children were easily detected, more subtle behavioural impairments such as difficulty with reading or writing were harder to pick up.

Other recommendations, such as researching the cost-effectiveness of early intervention programmes from pre-conception to three years within 12 months; and setting a national health target for all women to have an antenatal assessment within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, are likely to be harder to achieve.

But the good news for me and my peers, from committee chairman Dr Paul Hutchison: We are assured that investing more of the health budget in young Kiwis will not result in shortcomings for the elderly.

Nor should it.

garth.george@hotmail.com

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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