Aboriginal children in rural Australia have up to three times the rate of tooth decay compared to other Australian children. Tooth decay can affect a person’s overall health and nutrition because it can affect how they chew and swallow. Tooth decay can also reduce self esteem because of its effect on appearance and breath. And importantly, poor oral health increases the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease.
Yet tooth decay is both preventable and treatable. Broadly speaking, improving oral health is critical to closing the gap in health outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and Australians overall. Tackling this gap requires customised, community-led solutions. Our research demonstrates co-design — that is, engaging communities to design and deliver services for their own communities — is associated with significantly improved oral health among Aboriginal primary school children. This approach may also hold the answer for closing the gap in other areas of health care.
Oral health among Aboriginal children
In the middle of last century, Aboriginal children actually had significantly better oral health than other Australian children. But today, Aboriginal children have roughly double the rate of tooth decay compared to other Australian children. A range of factors have contributed to this recent problem, starting with colonisation — the effects of which have been compounded over time — and the shift to a highly processed Westernised diet.
Where interventions to prevent common oral diseases like tooth decay have become available to most Australian children in recent decades, Aboriginal children in rural Australia have historically had limited access to public dental services. The disparity is compounded by the cost of basic supplies like toothpaste and toothbrushes, which may be unattainable for some families, and poor availability of cool filtered drinking water in remote communities.