Northern Ireland's £9m dental bill is a real kick in the teeth
The level of dental disease in children in Northern Ireland - many of them very young - is shocking. More than 5,000 young people under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital to have teeth extracted in just one year.
The fact that the vast majority of teeth removed were the so-called baby teeth is all the more shocking. That means that parents are allowing the teeth of very young children to decay to a state which requires surgery in hospital.
The causes of tooth decay are obvious and mostly due to over-indulgence in drinks or food with a high sugar content, coupled with a lack of dental hygiene.
The result for the children involved is traumatic. As our story today shows, many will have abscessed teeth which cause them considerable pain and sleepless nights. It is also distressing for the parents to watch their children suffer.
The long-term effects for older children are even worse since they will be left with unsightly gaps in their teeth or else have to wear dentures from an early age.
At a societal level this demand on health resources is extremely expensive, running to over £9m. Given that dental decay is largely preventable, this is literally a waste of scarce funds from a service already creaking at the joints.
UUP MLA Roy Beggs makes a valid point when he stresses that the province's Oral Health Strategy is already a decade old and urgently needs to be updated. Of course this would be easier to accomplish if there was a functioning Assembly and Executive where decisions could be taken on all types of healthcare as well as every other public service.
Scotland has proved that action at central government level can pay dividends. Its Childsmile programme has reduced dental treatment costs by £5m a year through its outreach.
This programme offers guidance for parents, schools, nurseries and dental professionals on how to improve dental care. Advice on food and drinks ensures that children's teeth are protected from the earliest possible age and that parents are provided with the information required to query their children's diet at school or nursery.
A successful dental health programme pays for itself if the level of expenditure revealed in this latest report is indicative of the extent of the problem in Northern Ireland. Saving money and teeth is something to make us all smile.