Tooth decay in children at age five can be predicted by testing their saliva at age one, ground-breaking research has found, raising questions about what age to start oral health care.

New Zealand-born, Melbourne based Professor Mark Gussy presented on his research to Waikato District Health Board’s “Big Day In” oral health event yesterday to around 300 oral health experts.

He told the gathering that discovering you can predict the likelihood of a child having dental decay by testing the bacterial levels in their saliva at just 12 months old, meant he believed starting dental care at age two might be “too late”.

Gussy, who is Professor of Oral Health and Head of the School of Dentistry and Oral Health at La Trobe Rural Health School, Melbourne, lead 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 said.

“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,” said Gussy. “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 no tooth decay which left a lot of children already affected by tooth decay by the time they start school.

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.”

Norris said good oral health was 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.”

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