A new report suggests Auckland dental services have become overwhelmed with the number of children needing intensive treatment - creating a backlog so extensive that some have been forced to wait more than eight months in intense pain.
"There's just this avalanche of children coming through with really severe dental problems," NZ Dental Association president Dr Bill O'Connor told TVNZ 1's Breakfast today.
"It's just a numbers game, really," he explained. "The Auckland hospital can deal with 140 general anaesthetic cases a month, and they're getting 200-plus cases coming in every month."
There are currently about 2500 children on the waiting list for specialist treatment involving general anaesthetic, according to a report to the Waitematā and Auckland District Health Boards made public this week.
Patients requiring specialist appointments are supposed to be seen within four months, according to the Ministry of Health. But the current wait time is twice that.
Māori and Pacific children are unequally represented in the numbers, Dr O'Connor said, explaining that "it's the poorer children in society who are suffering the most".
"Eight months in pain is ridiculous for our children," Breakfast host Hayley Holt said today as she reviewed the stats with Dr O'Connor.
"Four months is pretty tough if you're in a fair bit of pain and infection, but ... that's probably an acceptable number for many of these children," he said. "But eight months is really getting tough."
He blamed the backlog on both an explosion in population taxing the system and a decrease in dental health.
"The kids are just saturated with sugar," he said.
Among the possible solutions, Dr O'Connor suggested putting more resources into school dental services so that therapists are less overwhelmed and can start focusing on prevention. He also suggested pushing through water fluoridation legislation, which he said seems to be stalled in Parliament.
"And things like schools just banning sugary drinks and sugary products from their premises during school hours," he said. "Just small things like that may make a significant difference."