ABSTRACTIntroduction: Dental decay (caries) can cause pain, infection and tooth loss, negatively affecting eating, speaking and general health. People living in rural and regional Australian communities have more caries, more severe caries and more untreated caries than those in the city. The unique environmental conditions and population groups in these communities may contribute to the higher caries burden. In particular, some towns lack community water fluoridation, and some have a high proportion of Aboriginal people, who have significantly worse oral health than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Because of these and other unique circumstances, mainstream research on caries risk factors may not apply in these settings. This study aimed to gather contemporary oral health data from small rural or regional Australian communities, and investigate caries risk factors in these communities. Methods: A cross-sectional survey consisting of a standardized dental examination and questionnaire was used to measure the oral health of 434 children (32% Aboriginal) aged 3-12 years in three small rural or regional areas. Oral health was determined as the deciduous and permanent decayed, missing and filled teeth (dmft/DMFT), and the proportion of children without caries. Risk factors were investigated by logistic regression. Results: The dmft/DMFT for children in this study was 1.5 for 5-6 year olds and 1.0 for 11-12 year olds (index groups reported). Independent predictors of having caries (Yes/No) were age group, holding a concession card (OR=2.45, 95%CI=1.58-3.80) and tooth-brushing less than twice per day (OR=2.11, 95% CI=1.34-3.34). Aboriginal status also became a significant variable under sensitivity analyses (OR 1.9, CI 1.12-3.24) when the tooth-brushing variable was removed. Gender, water fluoridation and parental education were not significant predictors of caries in these communities. Conclusions: The rural/remote children in this study had worse oral health than either state or national average in both the 5-6 year old and 11-12 year age group. Socioeconomic status, tooth-brushing and Aboriginal status were significantly associated with caries in these communities. To close the substantial gap in oral health outcomes between rural and metropolitan residents, approaches that target rural areas, Aboriginal people and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are needed.
Key words: Aboriginal, Australia, dental caries, fluoridation, oral health.