20/03/2015 07:50 GMT | Updated 19/05/2015 06:59 BST

World Oral Health Day: Billions Are Still Suffering - And Some Dying - From 'Tooth Decay'

If like me, you're not a dentist, your response may well be 'so what?' Given the level of other diseases we hear about, like ebola, that reaction is understandable. So why is oral health important, when there's so much else in the news?

The annual World Oral Health Day comes up again this Friday.

If like me, you're not a dentist, your response may well be 'so what?' Given the level of other diseases we hear about, like ebola, that reaction is understandable. So why is oral health important, when there's so much else in the news?

What I've observed over the dozen or so years I've been running a charity connected to dental health, is that oral health and access to dentistry isn't seen as important because we take it for granted.

Let's face it, sugar consumption in the past 30 years has rocketed in the UK, and yet the level of dental disease hasn't. Caries, or tooth decay, rates in children seem to be coming down (although there are still far too many kids needing extractions - about half of all eight-year-olds have tooth decay). On the whole, people understand that they need to brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss, visit the dentist regularly, and cut back on sugar. Whether they choose to do it is another matter.

And so we've got very comfortable in the UK where our oral health is concerned. If we do have a problem, we've got somewhere we can go to get prompt help.

However, we're in the minority - by a long way.

I spoke with an American dental surgeon during a recent volunteer placement she made here in Tanzania, where our charity (which takes out British dental volunteers to train local health workers) is based.

She told me she was seeing around one death per month in the district hospital: from complications caused by tooth decay.

"For every death we see," she said, "we know there are a lot more people that are at risk because of severe infection."

The most recent case she had seen was a 28-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, who had been referred from her village with a dental abscess that had failed to drain properly.

"The swelling was very large - the infection tracked into her chest. We operated to try and remove necrotising tissue, but it was too late. We lost her, and her baby."

Death from toothache. In the 21st Century.

More than 70% of the world still lives without the chance of any kind of dental help: no dentists, no pain relief, no-one to fix you up. These people, mostly living in the rural areas of developing countries, have little understanding of oral health care, access to toothpaste or even that sugar is bad for your teeth.

It wasn't so long ago, before the discovery or antibiotics and an increase in dental training, that a similar situation existed in the UK. One of the leading causes of death in the 16th century was sepsis due to untreated dental infections.

People can, and still do, die from dental infection - all for want of a simple tooth extraction at the right time.

Of course, for every death, there are thousands more men, women and children who suffer in agony at the risk of complications, or who receive horrific injuries through self or unqualified treatment.

I've shared this before, but I keep coming back to this boy - Petro. You can read his story here.


On one side of his face the skin was taut, bright and healthy - as the skin of a 12-year-old should be. On the other, it looked like it had aged 70 years; rough, distressed and tired.

Petro's mother was visibly upset, as any mother would be. She felt helpless. Petro was crying, holding his right cheek; petrified.

Over the past month Petro had been taken by his parents to see the local witch doctor about the worsening pain.

The witch doctor, professing to know what was causing the problem, had repeatedly stabbed and cut Petro's cheek with a razor blade and then proceeded to rub into the wounds a black powder: a concoction of ground charcoal, dried leaves and other ingredients. He had done this on each of Petro's three visits; the pain gradually increased.

Petro had missed a lot of school, only attending for about three days, even in a good week. The rest of the time he spent sleeping at home unable to concentrate on anything other than the intense pain.

They couldn't afford a doctor, and anyway Petro didn't have the luxury of time to travel and wait for the referrals and treatment a doctor might provide. At no point had anyone identified that Petro's pain was being caused by a dental issue.

Our team identified the cause of Petro's pain as a dental abscess - something that can be simply treated with antibiotics and an extraction.

We were able to save him further pain and infection, but Petro is scarred for life by his experiences; no doubt mentally scarred too. For me he sums up why something so simple, so basic as oral health is important - because without education, understanding, prevention, and crucially in this case, ready access to treatment, life becomes miserable and impossible for billions of people every year.