Healthy mouths, healthy lives: the Pacific’s 2030 commitment

In Pacific Island countries, as many as one in two children have dental caries in their primary teeth, one of the highest prevalence rates in the world. If tooth decay is left untreated, it can cause pain and make children uncomfortable when eating, talking, and playing. Poor oral health can also lead to gum disease and tooth loss later in life, further reducing people’s health and quality of life.

Poor oral health is also a challenge outside the Pacific. In the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Region, more than 800 million people (42% of the population) suffer from dental caries, severe gum disease, tooth loss or oral cancer. The incidence of oral disease has increased by 30% in the region over the past three decades, disproportionately affecting poor and vulnerable groups.

Although most oral diseases can be prevented and treated early, the high out-of-pocket cost of oral health care makes it unaffordable for many families. Oral health care is usually not included in most countries' universal health coverage (UHC) packages. However, WHO member states adopted a historic resolution on oral health in 2021, calling on countries to incorporate oral health prevention and treatment into universal health coverage, and Pacific countries and regions are working hard to ensure that everyone has a healthy smile.

“Having good oral health enhances overall health and well-being at all stages of life,” said Dr. Saia Ma'u Piukala, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “By integrating oral health into primary health care, we can achieve cost efficiencies and reduce the high incidence of non-communicable diseases, paving the way for better overall health outcomes in the Western Pacific region.”

Suva Declaration on Improving Oral Health in the Pacific Islands Region

Oral Health Pacific Islands Alliance (OPIA) Pacific Chief Dental Officers Conference will be held in Fiji from 17 to 20 July 2023

Oral Health The Pacific Islands Alliance Pacific Chief Dental Officers Conference will be held in Fiji from 17 to 20 July 2023.

In 2014, seven years before the global oral health resolution was adopted, dental department heads from 14 Pacific Island countries and regions adopted the Suva Declaration on Improving Oral Health in the Pacific Islands and established the Pacific Islands Oral Health Alliance (OPIA). The Suva Declaration provides recommendations to strengthen oral disease prevention and control, including strengthening the oral health workforce and care services.

Last year, OPIA renewed its call for accelerated action to implement the Suva Declaration, with OPIA President Dr. Kantala Thiem confirming the agency’s commitment to promoting its implementation across the Pacific. Vanuatu is currently preparing to launch a revised national oral health policy in line with the WHO Global Oral Health Action Plan (2023-2030), and Nauru and Papua New Guinea are also working on developing national oral health policies.

“Gudfala Tut Skul” (Healthy Dental School)-Vanuatu

Vanuatu has been strengthening its oral health promotion activities, including through its health promotion schools programme. Since 2019, the Gudfala Tut Skul program, launched by Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health in collaboration with WHO and other local partners, has strengthened education in the country’s schools by increasing access to affordable fluoride toothpaste and emphasizing good nutrition. Oral health promotion, such as reducing the intake of sweets, cookies and sugary drinks. This not only helps promote good oral health, but also overall health.

“The Gudfala Tut Skul program capitalizes on the fact that young children are more willing to learn and adopt new behaviors. By teaching them about proper tooth brushing and good nutrition, we can help ensure a healthier future for future generations.

“Money” (smile) – Tonga

In Tonga, the South Pacific Medical Team (SPMT), a voluntary group of Japanese dentists, has been working with Tonga’s Ministry of Health and Education, the Ministry of Education, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency to improve children’s oral health through a project called “Mali “Horse” – means “smile” in Tongan. SPMT visits schools across the country once a week to coach teachers in teaching children how to brush their teeth and use fluoride mouthwash. Now, primary school students brush their teeth at school every day after lunch under the supervision of their teachers.

Implemented in all kindergartens and primary schools in Tonga, the Marima program has helped the country achieve a significant reduction in dental caries among children aged 12 and under. It received a Best Practice Award as part of the Healthy Islands recognition during the 15th Pacific Health Ministers Conference in 2023.

Children in Tonga brush their teeth outside school

Children in Tonga learn to brush their teeth as part of Project Marima.Photo courtesy of Eastern California Ministry of Health

Global Oral Health Action Plan: Implications for the Pacific

The WHO Global Oral Health Action Plan (2023-2030) promotes preventive measures, early detection and timely treatment of oral diseases. The action plan focuses on making oral health part of universal health coverage and aims to ensure that everyone has access to quality oral health services without causing financial hardship. The action plan also emphasizes the importance of integrating oral health into the primary health care system to improve access to oral health care services, especially for disadvantaged groups.

Let us recognize the progress made in oral health care in the Pacific and reaffirm our commitment to the Global Oral Health Action Plan so that everyone has access to the oral health care they need,” said Dr. Saia Ma'u Piukala. “Everyone has the right to a healthy smile.”

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