Tuesday, January 5, 1999 Published at 10:16 GMT
Dental risk for cancer children
Regular dental check-ups are essential to prevent infection
Children diagnosed with cancer have a greater chance of contracting fatal infections through poor dental hygiene but doctors and dentists are not doing enough to counter the risk, according to a study.
A research team has recommended that there should be greater co-ordination between cancer and dental services to protect vulnerable children.
It found that many children who had recently undergone gruelling cancer treatment were not visiting their dentists regularly.
This was partly because doctors were not informing them of the risks and partly because parents considered dental care a low priority while their child recovered from cancer.
The study was carried out by a team in Manchester on behalf of the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC).
Professor Tim Eden led the researchers. He explained why children were more vulnerable after cancer treatment.
He said: "When patients have got cancer or leukaemia they are treated with very intensive treatment which lowers their defences, both the cells that normally gobble up bacteria and also the cells that give you normal immunity.
"When you or I brush our teeth every morning we push bacteria into our blood often. Now, we've got cells that gobble the bacteria up, but these patients haven't."
In such patients infections can threaten their lives, he said.
The study found that even though this risk existed, only 21 of the 60 children interviewed and examined had visited a dentist since they had been diagnosed with cancer.
Only three of the 60 were using a fluoride supplement to help prevent tooth decay.
Nearly half had untreated tooth decay and a third needed urgent treatment for dental infection.
Professor Eden said that doctors should inform patients and their parents of the risks, and then they should seek out regular dental treatment.
However, the study found that some families were reluctant to go outside the hospital cancer services on which they had become reliant.
"The fact that most of the parents didn't go to the dentist was because they didn't see it as a major problem.
"In the face of having a child with cancer or leukaemia it's not surprising if they think the teeth aren't important," Professor Eden said.
Even if they did go, some dentists were reluctant to treat a child with an increased risk of infection, he said.
There needed to be closer co-operation between dental and cancer services, he said.
"You probably need a dentist who works in close collaboration with the oncology centre who knows all about the risks."
Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC, said: "This important study highlights the need for a more integrated system of medical and dental services for children.
"Children diagnosed with cancer could be putting their lives at risk just by not going to the dentist. Regular screening could also dramatically improve their quality of life."