Hospitals in England are seeing thousands of very young children each year needing baby teeth removed.The Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, which compiled the data, blames tooth decay linked to sugary diets.
Figures show there were 9,206 extractions carried out on children aged four and younger between April 2015 and March 2016.
A decade ago, it was closer to 7,400 extractions.
This 26 per cent rise needs to be put in the context of a 16 per cent rise in the number of children aged under five in that period. Nevertheless, it is a rise and the Faculty of Dental Surgeons wasted no time in pinning the blame on sugar:
‘When you see the numbers tallied up like this it becomes abundantly clear that the sweet habits of our children are having a devastating effect,’ said Professor Nigel Hunt of the RCS Faculty of Dental Surgery.
And yet there is no credible evidence that children's teeth are getting worse. As I said in the Spectator last year...
We are no longer a nation of Austin Powers. ‘The dental health of the majority of British children has improved dramatically since the early 1970s,’ according to a 2005 study, which also noted that ‘levels of dental decay in UK children at five and 12 years are among the lowest in the world.’ A further study in 2011 also found that ‘since the 1970s, the oral health of the population, both children’s dental decay experience and the decline [in] adult tooth loss, has improved steadily and substantially’. This was confirmed in a report from the Faculty of Dental Surgery last year.
It is possible that the number of tooth extractions could have risen despite the overall trend getting better. Extractions are quite rare and there could be some groups in society who are not visiting the dentist or brushing their teeth. (The BBC mentions the worrying fact that '42% of children did not see a dentist in 2015-16'.)
However, a few weeks after I wrote the Spectator article, Public Health England published the latest data from the Oral Health Survey of 5 Year Olds which told a very different story to the one we're being told today:
Tooth decay among 5 year olds continues significant decline
The oral health survey published today (Tuesday 10 May 2016) by Public Health England (PHE) reveals that less than 25% of the cohort suffers from tooth decay, a 20% drop since 2008.
Public Health England says:
The proportion of 5 year olds who have had teeth removed due to decay was 2.5%, compared to 3.5% in 2008 – about 2,000 fewer children.
The survey also shows the average number of teeth affected by decay per child was 0.8, down from 1.1 in 2008.
There has been a 9% increase in the proportion of children with no obvious decay since 2008.
Who to believe? Should we believe that tooth decay has fallen dramatically since the 1970s amongst every age group and that the number of under-5s who have had a tooth extracted has dropped from 3.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent since 2008? Or should we believe the opposite?
There are two reasons to take the more positive view. Firstly because it is backed up with a very large amount of evidence from academics, the Office for National Statistics, Public Health England and others. Secondly, because - at the time of writing - the Faculty of Dental Surgeons has not made its own evidence publicly available.