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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK
Concerns over China's teeth
Few Chinese people have access to dentists
Almost half a billion people in China never brush their teeth, according to the country's health chiefs.

The Chinese Preventive Medicine Society believes that less than half of the country's 900m rural population brush regularly while just 10% of the 400m living in cities clean properly.

Officials have also found that many people are using twigs or green tea to clean teeth, either because of tradition or a lack of money.

Poor oral health habits can have major implications on everyday life and quality of life

Dr Paul Erik Petersen, WHO
The findings have prompted officials to launch a major health education campaign to boost oral health across the country.

The Chinese national committee for oral health has launched information campaigns to encourage people to use toothbrushes, buy toothpaste and visit dentists.

The policy is aimed at ending the practice of using twigs and green tea used extensively across the country extending as high as China's leaders in the past.

The founder of modern China, the late Chairman Mao Zedong, is said to have had stained green teeth by the time he reached old age.

Health chiefs have also established pilot studies in some schools aimed at getting the message across to children.

According to the World Health Organisation, the schemes are starting to make a difference.

Examining results

Dr Poul Erik Petersen, group leader of the WHO's oral health programme, said officials were examining the results from one of the school-based schemes.

"The pilot scheme was based in one province and covered 140,000 people. The aim is to set targets for what can be accomplished in the rest of the country. We hope to learn from this study to see what can be achieved."

"We are hoping to learn from those schools and will use those lessons to help other schools in China to adopt the scheme," he said.

While the WHO is not directly involved in efforts to improve oral hygiene in China, it is supporting the country's national committee for oral health in that work.

"There has been work on issuing a new health message for Chinese people to adopt - visit the dentist regularly, use a toothbrush and toothpaste. We are supporting that," Dr Petersen said.

Lack of dentists

He added that many of the problems stemmed from the fact there were very few dentists in China - just one per 60,000 people.

He said the lack of dentists meant it was important that a self-care message got across to people.

"Self care has to be prioritised," he said. "Prevention and health promotion are important."

The WHO is also working on programmes aimed at improving oral hygiene in other parts of the world, including other countries in Asia and in Africa.

"The problem is you cannot rely on dentists. There are not enough," said Dr Petersen.

"In Africa, there are just one dentist per 100,000 people so we have to get the self-care message across."

Dr Petersen, who is the group leader of the WHO's oral health programme, said improving dental hygiene was important because it had a direct impact on people's everyday lives.

"A lack of dental hygiene has health implications but it also has an effect on the quality of life.

"If you think of children suffering from dental cavities, they may be in pain. This in turn may mean that they are not highly motivated to learn.

"Poor oral health habits can have major implications on everyday life and quality of life. That is why the implementation of such preventative programmes is a high priority."

See also:

26 Aug 01 | Health
Teeth that can heal themselves
22 May 01 | Health
Tea 'good for teeth'
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