The Burden of Oral Disease: Challenges to Improving Oral Health in the 21st Century

By Petersen, Poul Erik | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Burden of Oral Disease: Challenges to Improving Oral Health in the 21st Century


Petersen, Poul Erik, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


Dental caries and periodontal diseases have historically been considered the most important part of the global burden of oral diseases. At present, the distribution and severity of oral diseases vary in different parts of the world and within the same country or region. Dental caries is still a major public health problem in most industrialized countries, affecting 60-90% of schoolchildren and the vast majority of adults. It is also a prevalent oral disease in several Asian and Latin American countries, while it appears to be less common and less severe in most African countries. It is expected, however, that the incidence of dental caries will increase in the near future in many developing countries of Africa, as a result of growing consumption of sugars and inadequate exposure to fluorides.

The significant role of socio-behavioural and environmental factors in oral disease and health is demonstrated in a large number of epidemiological surveys. The current pattern of dental caries reflects primarily distinct risk profiles across countries (related to living conditions, lifestyles and environmental factors) and the implementation of preventive oral health systems.

In some industrialized countries there has been a positive trend in the reduction of tooth loss among adults in recent years, though the proportion of edentulous persons in the elderly population is still high in some countries. In most developing countries, access to oral health services is limited and teeth are often left untreated or are extracted because of pain or discomfort. Tooth loss and impaired oral function are therefore expected to increase as a public health problem in many developing countries.

Tooth loss in adult life may also be attributable to poor periodontal health. Severe periodontitis, which may result in tooth loss, is found in 5-15% of most populations. In industrialized countries, studies show that tobacco use is a major risk factor for adult periodontal disease. With the growing consumption of tobacco in many developing countries, the risk of periodontal disease and tooth loss may therefore increase. Oral cancer is closely related to the use of tobacco and excessive consumption of alcohol. The prevalence of oral cancer is particularly high among men, and is the eighth most common cancer worldwide. In south and central Asia, consumption of tobacco in various forms is particularly high, and cancer of the oral cavity ranks among the three most common types of cancer. Periodontal disease and tooth loss are also related to chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus: the growing incidence of diabetes may further impact negatively on oral health of people in several developing countries.

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