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The Global Burden of Oral Health – When a Cavity is Not Just a Cavity

Dr. Michael Unger, Cambodia '08A recent Global Burden of Disease Study conducted internationally over the course of 20 years found that untreated tooth decay was the most common out of 291 diseases studied. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that untreated tooth decay impacts between 60 and 90 percent of children and almost 100 percent of adults worldwide. Aside from costly fillings and the potential loss of teeth, tooth decay and other oral health conditions have serious implications for individuals’ overall health and quality of life—particularly for low-income populations and those living in resource-scarce countries.

In a 2014 report, the FDI World Dental Federation highlighted some of the less obvious effects of tooth decay. Cavities, decay, malformation and missing teeth can make eating difficult, painful and unenjoyable, placing those already suffering from hunger and malnutrition at even greater risk. Poverty and lack of access to education are both compounded by prolonged absences from work or school. According to the FDI World Dental Federation, millions of work and school days are missed each year as a result of oral afflictions. Pain from untreated decay can also affect children’s concentration on days they are in school.

Individuals living in developing countries are also disproportionately affected by other oral health conditions with symptoms that are more severe, at times deadly. The FDI World Dental Federation reports that oral cancer is twice as prevalent in low-income countries compared with their high-income counterparts. Noma – a disfiguring gangrenous disease most common in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia –primarily affects children under the age of six who are living in poverty. If left untreated, noma is fatal in the majority of cases, the WHO finds.

Most oral health conditions are preventable, and the cost of prevention is typically much lower than the cost associated with a curative approach to oral health care. By strengthening the oral health workforce in resource-scarce countries through education, HVO is helping to address the global burden of oral health.

As World Oral Health Day approaches this Sunday, you too can do your part to improve global oral health outcomes. Consider donating to our fundraiser to purchase textbooks for the library of Haiti’s only dental school. These crucial texts will help prepare the school’s graduates to diagnose and treat patients. Just as a rotting tooth can negatively impact the overall health of an individual, a small donation could positively impact the quality and accessibility of oral health care for an entire nation.

Learn more about HVO’s oral health programs.