Over 5,000 children needed teeth extractions last year in Northern Ireland as experts call for dedicated plan
More than 5,000 children were admitted to hospitals in Northern Ireland to have multiple teeth extracted in a year - costing the health service an estimated £9m.
In just 12 months, a total of 22,699 teeth were extracted under general anaesthetic from 5,122 under-18s.
The majority of the teeth removed - 19,970 - were 'deciduous' or 'baby' teeth, while 2,729 were 'permanent' or adult teeth.
Research by the British Dental Association Northern Ireland (BDA NI) estimates the cost to the health service of removing the teeth was £9,347,650.
It said the figure is based on health service statistics, which show an average cost of £1,825 per hospital procedure.
The South Eastern Trust area had the highest number of children (1,907) having the most teeth removed (6,137). The Belfast Trust area had the fewest (267 children and 1,456 teeth extracted).
According to the BDA NI, tooth decay is the number one reason for child hospital admissions in Northern Ireland.
It is backing calls for major reform of oral health strategy.
Chair of BDA NI salaried dentists committee Grainne Quinn, who has worked as a dentist for over two decades, said she is "still shocked" at the levels of tooth decay in children here.
She said: "I regularly see children as young as three and four who require multiple extractions.
"These teeth are so decayed they have abscessed and are causing the children severe pain and sleepless nights.
"This is a distressing experience for both children and their parents and the fact that children, this young, are undergoing surgery for a condition which is largely preventable is shocking and underlines the need for urgent action.
"Tooth decay in children is a significant public health issue and we cannot continue to accept that extracting over 22,000 teeth a year is the new normal.
"Long-standing investment in a dedicated regional prevention programme is urgently needed."
The BDA NI has called for the health service here to "learn vital lessons from the dedicated programmes in Scotland and Wales that are securing transformative improvements in children's teeth".
A spokesperson explained: "The Scottish Childsmile initiative has reportedly reduced dental treatment costs by £5m a year, through outreach in schools and nurseries.
"Dentist leaders have been encouraged by a wide range of small scale initiatives across Northern Ireland to tackle the problem, but have called for a coordinated and appropriately funded NI-wide strategy."
BDA NI council chair Roz McMullan added that tooth decay is a "wholly preventable disease".
She said: "Northern Ireland's 2007 Oral Health Strategy is now over a decade old with recommendations and targets based on data from 2003. It needs to be evaluated, updated and underpinned by the latest evidence."
UUP health spokesperson Roy Beggs said the high levels of hospital admissions for extractions showed the "current Oral Health Strategy is not working".
He stated: "The 2007 NI Oral Health Strategy is badly out-of-date and needs to be updated learning the lessons from the successful 'Childsmile' approach in Scotland and 'Designed2Smile' in Wales.
"In line with aspects of the Bengoa recommendations, greater emphasis is needed on earlier, preventative intervention to improve oral health and prevent tooth decay."
A Department of Health spokesperson said it "must adopt a prioritised approach to its policy and strategy work".
She stated: "A range of data sources indicate that the ongoing policies and programmes continue to lead to improved oral health outcomes, and that the basic principles of the strategy would be unlikely to significantly change.
"Oral health promotion and dental disease prevention programmes are delivered by Community Dental Services teams and health promotion staff at community and individual levels and are targeted at those at greatest risk. Fluoride toothpaste schemes for the most socio-economically deprived council wards have been funded since 2005 and continue to be so given the associated fall in extraction levels since inception.
"Dental disease prevention is also prioritised through the payment of fees to general dental practitioners for evidence-based preventive treatments, and significantly enhanced capitation payments to those children most at risk to allow individually-tailored oral hygiene advice and instruction, and topical fluoride application."
She referred to the 'Happy Smiles' programme, which comprises a tooth-brushing programme, a healthy snacks programme, and an educational programme for the pre-school age group.