Speaking to parents at the prizegiving for the national baby show last week, Areai said problems with teeth often began from a very young age, because attention to oral health was generally lacking in this country.
He said oral care was probably one of the most neglected aspects of many Cook Islanders’ health.
“We use (our teeth) every day, which is why they shouldn’t be neglected.” Areai said the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined oral health as being able to eat, speak and socialise without any discomfort or pain.
“Basically, you should have a mouth that is healthy, pain-free and which allows you to interact well with your peers.”
To illustrate the seriousness of the problem in this country, Areai says WHO statistics show 60-90 per cent of school children, and nearly 100 per cent of adults have dental cavities.
He says decaying teeth not only look bad, but tooth decay and other oral conditions can lead to other much more serious health issues.
“We have to look at oral health from a holistic point of view.
Because, bear in mind, the mouth is not separated from the heart and everything else.”
Areai said there were links between bad oral health and with rheumatic heart disease.
“That’s because bacteria involved in this disease lives in your mouth.
“So it’s important to address that; we need to look at it really seriously.”
Polynesian children were more susceptible to oral health issues, and thus possibly at greater risk of more serious diseases, than Caucasians, Areai added.
“By the age of (just) six months our children’s teeth start coming out. Studies have shown our teeth tend to come out much earlier than that of our Caucasian counterparts.
“Yes, it’s good to have your teeth early, but at the same time, it means the teeth are exposed to extra risks at a much earlier age. Which means as Polynesians and Cook Islanders, we have to start early when looking after our children’s teeth.
“Our job here, as mamas and papas, to look after our children, because it’s not only affecting their teeth, it’s also affecting other parts of their body.”
Areai said one of the problems Public Health faced in dealing with dental problems was a lack of oral health data on children aged under four.
“Unfortunately, (by the time) we start seeing our children in school, they are already having problems with their teeth. This is where that gap is, because in the current system we don’t catch them until they begin school.”
Areai says Public Health’s goal is to target children before they reach school.
“We have set the target that is for five-year-olds to have a least 50 per cent of their teeth not decay.
“One of the conditions that is common in our children is early childhood caries. It is where multiple number of teeth are decaying, and the point of this, is do not feed your baby with the sweetened drinks, like juice, to put them to sleep.
“That is what is causing this problem. Because the sugar gets stuck on their teeth and there’s no saliva to get rid of it.”
Areai stressed the importance of avoiding giving young children sugar and large amounts of food, because the more food that was consumed, the more likely it was that their mouth would become acidic, accelerating tooth decay.
And when it comes to prevention of dental problems in children, Areai’s main solution is tried and true.
“Some of our children are unable to brush their teeth properly, so as parents you need to help them. Even though brushing is one of a very old methods, it is maybe the best prevention that you can have.
“And it is meant to be something that children will find fun.
“The first 1000 days of the child’s life are crucial in many respects, in health and education, and we need to make sure our children get a head start.”