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Why we need strong dental public health messages

Blog Author Professor Damien Walmsley

Blog Date 12/11/2020

Outgoing BDA Scientific Advisor, Professor Damien Walmsley reflects on the vital role of dental public health messaging.

The Government is finally moving towards an outright ban on online advertising for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. This is major progress and has long been part of our campaign to help safeguard oral health.

It’s the same reason why we called on the government to provide vulnerable children with access to healthy meals over the holidays, why we lobbied hard for the sugar tax, and why we will never stop pushing for a decent food environment for our kids.

Dentistry understands how crucial oral health is, and it is our responsibility to communicate this widely through strong and clear public health messages.

As the BDA’s Scientific Advisor, I have helped to curate these messages since I first joined in 2007. Now, as I prepare to vacate this fascinating position, I am struck by how vital public dental health messages remain.

COVID-19 is set to send levels of health inequality through the roof and we need, now more than ever, to ensure that correct and scientifically-verified information is communicated.


Tooth brushing is a fundamental part of oral care

When I first began my role at the BDA the new dental contract was still relatively new and media stories involved fluoridation, the dangers of amalgam and unnecessary dental work. The need for six monthly check-ups was also in the news. I’m pleased to say that we have achieved tangible success with some of these topics while others continue to spark debate and headlines.

"We continue to ask the public to clean their teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste."

The mantra, however, remains the same: toothbrushing can never go ‘out of fashion’. We continue to ask the public to clean their teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, reduce their sugar intake, and ensure they visit their dentist on a regular basis. This messaging becomes even more significant when you consider the dental access issues that COVID-19 has exacerbated throughout society.

We are also raising concerns about the reduction in capacity that dentists are experiencing and the subsequent issue of increasing oral health inequality.


Oral health is not an optional extra

The BDA’s Health and Science Committee, on which I sit, ensures that topical issues are “fact checked”, and that politics does not interfere with the science.

We are often asked to comment on different policies, and one of our fundamental goals is to ensure that the oral health of the population remains high on the agenda.

For example, our lobbying work on sugar and the ‘sugar tax’ affects young children’s oral health, as well as their general health and life outcomes. We have a duty to inform the Government that there is an increase in general anaesthetics for the extraction of teeth. Tooth decay is a preventable disease so why are our children suffering?

Gum disease is also preventable and highlighting the direct association of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other inflammatory disorders helps to make people aware of the need to keep their mouth healthy by maintaining periodontal health.


Dentistry in the UK is innovative

"Dentistry in the UK is cutting edge, and this is something we need to shout about."

I have just talked to a science journal about controlling your mobile phone with clicks of the teeth and another story about using the teeth and palatal rugae being used as bibliometric data checks.

Dentistry in the UK is cutting edge, and this is something we need to shout about. A good example is the potential to grow back enamel using synthetic materials.

Again, due to COVID-19 and the potential impact of Brexit, university and research funding is falling, and we need to ensure the UK remains the leader in the field - our teaching and our learning, as well as our ability to treat patients using the best and clinically-proven techniques, depends upon it.


Our health messages are based on science

We need to ensure that stories in the media are underpinned by good evidence. Commenting on breaking news has been a huge part of my job and I love the excitement of quickly and effectively responding to calls. From companies flogging 'healthy' fluoride-free toothpaste to the warnings over 'prosecco smiles', we work to set the record straight.

A good example during the pandemic has been the headlines around ‘mask mouth’. This was a story put out by two dentists in New York, who claimed patients were facing serious oral health problems as a result of using face coverings.

It was a cheap headline, seemingly motivated more by political prejudice than good science or a desire to protect public health. As I made it clear in our response, dentists have always worn masks, and we are not exactly at the forefront of the queue for tooth extractions!

It has been a great privilege to be the BDA’s Scientific Advisor. During these uncertain times, the public and the profession needs a reliable and confident voice to comment on the science behind the dentistry. It will be exciting to see who takes over and I wish them well in the role.

Professor Damien Walmsley

Professor Damien Walmsley
BDA Scientific Advisor