An Illawarra dentist says COVID-19 lockdowns and a lack of "dental literacy" are to blame for an explosion in tooth cavities in children in the Illawarra.
More than half the children who visit his Illawarra dental practice have cavities in their adult teeth - double the state average.
And he warns children face long-term dental, health and even developmental problems if tooth cavities are left untreated.
Dr Mohit Tolani works at Dapto Dentists and is a member of the Australian Dental Association (ADA) NSW branch.
The ADA NSW said Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data for 2022 showed one in four Australian children aged 6-14, or 24 per cent, had dental cavities in their permanent teeth.
But Dr Tolani said anecdotal evidence showed this figure was much higher in the Illawarra.
"Definitely in the Illawarra we are seeing much higher rates of tooth decay in children," he said.
"More than half the children I see will have cavities in their permanent teeth."
He blamed a "lack of awareness" of many parents about how to manage their child's dental hygiene.
He said successive COVID-19 lockdowns, during which only emergency dental procedures and not regular check-ups were allowed, had also contributed to the explosion in childhood cavities he was seeing now.
"What I am seeing after two years of COVID is that parents have missed two years of their children's oral health," he said.
"Those children have not been having regular check-ups and their parents maybe have not known what is normal and what is not in regards to tooth development, and there is just an overall lack of dental literacy."
It is recommended children visit a dentist soon after their first tooth emerges and have annual check-ups to ensure they are familiar with dental practice surroundings and dentists can pick up any problems early.
But Dr Tolani said he was not seeing some children for up to three years, during which time major problems had developed.
"I have recently had a child who is under five with four serious cavities. He had not seen a dentist for over three years," he said.
Dr Tolani said the child needed extensive dental work spread out over numerous appointments, which also caused a great deal of fear and anxiety.
He said severe cavities in children, when left untreated, had serious ramifications and could even affect oral and speech development.
Dr Tolani said many cases of dental cavities in children were attributed to poor nutrition and poor dental management, which includes brushing.
He spends time during appointments discussing dental health and the role of nutrition, with high-sugar diets, and especially hidden sugar in snack foods, a big problem.
Dr Tolani said while people often avoid dentists because of "fear and cost", many parents were not aware they could access free dental care for their children under the means-tested Child Dental Benefits Scheme (CDBS).
"It is very under-utilised but basically it provides free dental checks for eligible families up to $1026," he said.
"Studies indicate that only around 37 per cent of eligible families are utilising the biannually replenished benefit."
Dr Tolani said his practice offered the scheme to eligible families with no gap, and urged parents to see if they were eligible and take advantage of the scheme.
"If you are eligible for the scheme I strongly recommend using it," he said.
Child Dental Benefits Scheme
The CDBS is a federal government means-tested program that provides up to $1026 in benefits over two consecutive calendar years to children up to the age of 17.
It covers most basic general dental services including check-ups, X-rays, cleaning, fissure sealants, fillings, root canals and extractions.
Children whose parents hold a Health Care Card or who receive an eligible Centrelink payment such as Family Tax Benefit A may be eligible.
Details about the scheme can be found here
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