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Is two years of age too late to check for tooth decay?

Prof. Mark Gussy

Ground-breaking research testing baby’s saliva in the first 12 months of a life could show if a child will develop tooth decay or not.

Over 300 oral health experts heard first-hand about these findings and more from Professor Mark Gussy, one of this year’s keynote speakers at Waikato DHB’s Big Day In oral health event, 25 January at the University of Waikato.

Dr Gussy, born in the King Country Town of Te Kuiti, is Professor of Oral Health and Head of the School of Dentistry and Oral Health at La Trobe Rural Health School, Melbourne.

He led out a population based observational study following 600 children from birth to 7 years of age.

“We did microbiological research testing children’s saliva at 12 months and we found those that had bad decay at 5 years, when we reviewed the saliva leading up, had abnormalities. At around 12 months of age we saw a massive drop in this group’s bacterial species” said Professor Gussy.

“In kids without decay at 5 years, their bacterial species were normal” he says.

“What we do in the first 12 months of life through testing abnormal saliva could help us predict and target kids before they’re clinically diagnosed with decay. In Australia, this will help us reach populations of low equity to determine who’s at risk and who’s not, especially if we have limited resource, we could intervene and provide treatment earlier.

“Two is too late, is how we think about these findings. Understanding microbiology could set children’s oral health and wellbeing up for life, especially for children from poorer areas that will benefit most. Our next challenge is how we could be doing more with parents and their children under one to prevent tooth decay.”

In 2016 in the Waikato region, 61 per cent of 5 year old children had a perfect set of teeth not affected by tooth decay. But what this means is there are a lot of children still affected by tooth decay.

Waikato DHB’s community dentist Jennifer Norris said “The chance to identify children at risk of tooth decay at an early age and before the disease has started is very exciting.

“This new research could change the focus of dentistry for young children away from treating holes to supporting families to manage their own oral health. Tooth decay in young children is far too common in New Zealand and reducing this will positively impact on families across the country.”

Good oral health is very important for general health, and issues with teeth can affect eating, growth and sleep. Good oral health in young children can continue throughout their life with the right advice and support.

More about Professor Mark Gussy

More recently Mark has become interested in equity issues related to oral health in vulnerable groups (disadvantaged children, rural communities, mental health consumers, people with disabilities and combinations of these). His ongoing research is focused on understanding dental disease, developing strategies for primary and secondary disease prevention and achieving equity in access to care and health outcomes for vulnerable groups.

He is a member of the International Association of Dental Research. His research interests have been:

  • Aetiology of early childhood caries (ECC) with focus on pathophysiology of the disease, multiple determinants of the disease manifestation and progress
  • Models of shared care for ECC disease prevention and management
  • Innovative and Locally-Responsive Service Models and Rural Health Workforce Mark has a total research grant income of approximately $5M and he has authored approximately 50 peer reviewed publications and major reports.

He was chief investigator on two major nationally funding cohort studies that have allowed early childhood caries to be tracked longitudinally in rural children. The results of this work now impacts public health policy and strategies to prevent obesity and dental diseases.

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