WHO: new strategy to combat global oral disease burden

A new global oral health strategy has been approved during the 75th WHO World Health Assembly to help ease the colossal oral disease burden. The WHO estimate that more than 3.5 billion cases of oral diseases and other oral conditions occurred in 2017, most of which are preventable with good oral hygiene and correct timely treatment.

The oral health policy aims to focus on a typically overlooked global health issue and has been heralded by experts as “a step in the right direction”.

The WHO states that for the last three decades, the combined global prevalence of dental caries (tooth decay), periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss has remained unchanged at 45%, which is higher than the prevalence of any other non-communicable disease. 

Pain and disease in the mouth can affect an individual’s ability to perform essential functions, such as eating, breathing and speaking, but also has an impact on a person’s self-confidence, well-being and the ability to socialize and work without pain, discomfort and embarrassment. 

Oral health also encompasses oral cancers, orofacial clefts, traumatic dental injury and the childhood disease Noma - noncommunicable necrotizing disease that typically occurs in young children living in extreme poverty.

The aetiology of Noma is unknown but its risk factors include malnutrition; coinfections; vaccine-preventable diseases; poor oral hygiene; and poor living conditions, such as deficiencies in water, sanitation and hygiene. 

Experts reinforce the strong and consistent association between socioeconomic status (income, occupation and educational level) and the prevalence and severity of poor oral health. In particular those who are poor and vulnerable in society, those living with a disability, the elderly or marginalized communities often are disproportionately impacted by oral diseases. 

Seeking treatment for oral health issues is often costly. The high out-of-pocket payments mean that those most vulnerable to oral disease do not seek care when needed, prioritising the treatment of other health concerns over their oral health. 

Even Universal Health Care programmes across the world struggle to provide access to dentists and oral healthcare professionals – often prioritising other diseases such as HIV or TB

The aim of the strategy is to address the lack of oral health policy across nations, and encourage national level oral health promotion and oral disease prevention programmes.   

The WHO has created six guiding principles to establish oral health strategy, including treating the public health disease burden in multidisciplinary manner : “A public health approach to oral health requires intensified and expanded upstream actions on the social and commercial determinants of oral health, involving a broad range of stakeholders from social, economic, education, environment and other relevant sectors.”

Oral health has often been overlooked when combatting noncommunicable diseases, the WHO acknowledges that previously oral health promotion and oral disease prevention were not typically integrated in other NCD programmes that share major common risk factors.

Reference:

World Health Organization (2022) Follow-up to the political declaration of the third high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the prevention and control of non-communicable disease . Seventy-Fifth World Health Assembly A75/10 Add.1 Provisional agenda item 14.1 27 April 2022 12 pp. https://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/WHA75/A75_10Add1-en.pdf