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What do we know about oral health among Indigenous people?

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What is known about oral health in the Indigenous population?

Oral health is a term used to talk about the health of a person's teeth and gums [1]. If people have unhealthy teeth and gums they will probably have some pain. Also, they may not be able to eat a variety of healthy foods or talk to other people comfortably.

Two common oral health problems are caries and gum diseases [1][2]. Caries is caused by bacteria that decay (break down) the enamel (hard outer part of the tooth); if caries is not treated the tooth will continue to decay and will eventually have to be removed [2]. Caries is caused by eating a lot of sticky and sweet foods that let bacteria to grow and multiply. Gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) is caused by bacteria that attack the gums causing them to swell and bleed. If gum disease is not treated, the gums start to break down and the teeth will become loose because the gums won't be strong enough to hold them in place. Gum disease is caused by poor oral hygiene (poor care of the teeth and gums).

The oral health of Indigenous people is not as good as that of non-Indigenous Australians [3]. The oral health of young non-Indigenous children has improved in recent years, but the oral health of young Indigenous children has generally got worse. Indigenous children have more caries in their deciduous (baby) and permanent (adult) teeth than do non-Indigenous children, and their caries are often more severe. Indigenous children have more decayed, missing and filled teeth than do non-Indigenous children. In 2000-2003, Indigenous children also had more gingivitis (a mild form of periodontal disease) than non-Indigenous children.

Indigenous adults had more than twice as much caries as non-Indigenous adults, and had three times the number of decayed surfaces, which is often because of poor access to dental services [4]. Indigenous adults also suffered from more periodontal disease than did non-Indigenous adults. More Indigenous adults than non-Indigenous adults suffered from edentulism (losing all of their teeth), especially at younger ages.


  1. Chrisopoulos S, Harford JE (2013) Oral health and dental care in Australia: key facts and figures 2012. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  2. Northern Territory Department of Health (2011) Healthy smiles: oral health and fluoride varnish information for health professionals. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Health
  3. Jamieson LM, Armfield JM, Roberts-Thomson KF (2007) Oral health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Canberra: Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH)
  4. Slade GD, Spencer AJ, Roberts-Thomson KF (2007) Australia's dental generations: the national survey of adult oral health 2004-06. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
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