A leading Irish dentist said that more children than ever are undergoing procedures to remove decayed teeth before the age of four.
Vice President of the Irish Dental Association (IDA) Dr Anne Twomey also said the HSE is catering for the oral wellbeing of children “very poorly”.
The comments come after Britain’s Faculty of Dental Surgery released stark figures this week, which showed that baby teeth removals in England are up 24pc since one decade ago.
The IDA believes the situation in Ireland could be even worse.
Dr Twomey said an increasing number of children as young as 18 months are having their teeth removed every year because of decay.
"We’re seeing very young children with increased tooth decay all the time. I would estimate that our rates in Ireland are even higher probably than the UK.
"Having teeth extracted can cause so many problems. After they’ve been pulled, the holes close up and when the permanent teeth come down, they can do so in bizarre ways, even through the palate, and often they need significant orthodontistry later in life.
"This is why we need to put a focus on preventing decay in the first place."
The UK study found that in England, more than 9,000 extractions were carried out on children aged four and under between April 2015 and March 2016, while in 2006, the number neared 7,400.
According to 2012 figures from the HSE’s National Clinical Programme for Paediatrics and Neonatology, 8,601 inpatient dental procedures were carried out on children under 15 years of age, however the IDA believes that the figures are much higher.
The report states that it does not include figures representing the number children who have undergone minor surgical procedures under local anaesthetic or figures for children treated in the private sector.
Dr Anne Twomey said children should see a dentist after they turn one, but currently do not usually have their first appointment with the dentist until they are around eight-years-old.
Speaking to Independent.ie, she said the HSE are catering "very poorly" for Irish children when it comes to their oral health.
"Children are catered for very poorly by our health care system. Very often they can be eight years old before they ever meet the dentist, but really they should be seeing the dentist after they turn one so problems can be picked up and prevented from the beginning.
"Often children are only brought to the dentist when they are in pain, as an afterthought, when they’re fighting dreadful infections and going through such pain.
"Two weeks ago, I had a one-and-a-half-year-old come in to us and all of his teeth, which he had had for less than six months, were decayed and had to be extracted,” she said.
Speaking in response to the IDA’s criticism, the HSE strongly rebuffed the IDA’s assertion that up to 10,000 children under the age of 15 are being hospitalised for dental procedures in Ireland every year and said the oral health of our children has been "improving overall".
A HSE spokesperson said: "A research project Fluoride and Caring for Children's Teeth (FACCT) is being conducted by UCC and supported by the HSE. While the results of this research project are due to be published this year, preliminary findings indicate that children's oral health has been improving overall since the previous survey of children's oral health in 2002."
The HSE said that they have introduced a number of initiatives aimed at improving the oral health of Ireland’s children throughout the past decade, most prominently a commitment to fluoridated water, which helps strengthen the enamel in our teeth.
The HSE said it is working with the Department of Education and Skills on a Healthy School policy approach and said a code of practice is being put into place for food advertising, promotion, marketing and sponsorship. The body also said it liaising with the food industry to reform and reduce sugar content in our foods.
However, Dr Twomey said not enough is being done to rectify the situation and said the Government can empower people by making the levels of sugar in our food more transparent.
"Our diet in Ireland has changed beyond recognition since a few decades ago. We consume so much sugar now and often hidden sugars. Many parents don’t realise just how much sugar is in their diluted drinks, their children’s apple juice and orange juice.
"Follow-on-milks and sugary yoghurts markets specifically towards children are also large culprits in the increased number of very young kids, sometimes at young as one and a half having to have their teeth extracted because of decay.
"Things like raisins are marketed towards children but they may as well be eating toffees than eating raisins.
"The only way parents can empower themselves is to read the labels, but often you’d need a magnifying glass. I think the only thing that would really help would be a physical picture of how many teaspoons of sugar is in a product, on the front of it. Most tomato sauces are 60pc sugar, for instance."
The Cork-based dentist said the overall health of the national is in danger and having worked in the UK, she was shocked to return to Ireland to see the level of decay in her patients.
"In Ireland, we are the highest consumers of confectionery in the EU. That’s not a good prize to win every year.
"I worked in the UK for five years and when I returned to Ireland I couldn’t believe the levels of decay I was seeing in my patients."
The dentist also warned parents who live in the countryside and whose water is provided by their own well to be extra vigilant with their children’s teeth as the water is not fluoridated.
Fluoride strengthens the enamel on our teeth and makes them stronger.
"In my area I would see a lot of children from both the country and suburban areas and it can be the children from the country that can have the worst problems. If children are drinking from their own wells parents need to be mindful that the water does not have fluoride, which strengthens the enamel, and they are at a disadvantage.
"I would advise anyone living is such a situation to bring their children to the dentist really early in life, and to have a fluoride varnish applied by the dentist regularly. Adult strength toothpaste should be used on these kids, and if they were my own they would not be drinking anything other than milk and water. When they are a little bit older, I would advise them to use fluoride mouthwash a few times a day," she said.
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