Source: RadioNZ - Listen to the RadioNZ coverage on
Morning Report ( 3 min 50 sec )
A new study shows children with several rotten teeth are
nearly twice as likely to get rheumatic fever.
The research suggested sugar, which causes tooth decay, can also
be linked to the childhood disease that can lead to severe
complications in later life and sometimes early death.
Above: Dr Simon Thornley, FNZCPHM
Auckland Regional Public Health Service
epidemiologist Dr Simon Thornley said he was inspired to explore
the link after reading a throwaway line in a 1930s dentist's
He said Weston Price's controversial Nutrition and Physical
Deterioration was one of the first texts to highlight the
failings of a modern western diet with flour and sugar.
Dr Thornley scoured the dental and health records of 20,000
five- and six-year-old Pacific and Māori children in south Auckland
over seven years.
He said his findings, which were in a preliminary stage and
still have to be published, were a breakthrough.
"We looked at the state of their teeth and looked at whether
they got rheumatic fever during follow-up, and it showed that kids
who had five or more decayed teeth when they had that first visit,
they were about twice as likely to develop rheumatic fever compared
to kids who had less than five decayed teeth."
Sugar 'providing fuel for the bacteria'
Rheumatic fever mostly affects poor Pacific and Māori
It starts with strep throat and can lead to scarring and damage
within the heart.
Children who have suffered rheumatic fever often need heart
surgery later in life and some will die prematurely.
Dr Thornley, who campaigns against sugary drinks, said the bugs
that cause tooth decay and strep throat are closely related and
feed on sugar.
"Having a lot of sugar in the diet causes both bad teeth to
develop but also it increases the chances that if that child comes
into contact with a bacteria that it will take hold and cause
disease in the mouth and in the body."
He said sugar was the culprit.
"To me, the sugar is providing fuel for the bacteria, which we
know are important in both those diseases."
New options for prevention
Dental therapist Rachel Bridgeman of Simply Dental, a mobile
dental programme for adolescents, said she was extracting and
filling more teeth than ever.
"The sugary drinks, what these kids eat, is insane. It's just
setting up for not just dental issues but a huge range of other
issues that result from a bad diet."
Ms Bridgeman said the study should be used to put pressure on
sugary drinks makers.
"Actually putting a little bit of responsibility back on the
people who are actually selling this and the way we market the
stuff because we're teaching people that its normal."
Dr Bryan Betty, a GP in Cannons Creek in Porirua, which has one
of the highest rates of rheumatic fever in the country, said
research linking the two diseases would be exciting.
"It's been well-known for a long time that tooth decay is
associated with morbidity both in adults and children. It's
certainly one of the hidden health issues that New Zealand is
facing, and I think if there is research that is starting to look
at the link between rheumatic fever and tooth decay it's actually
very, very important."
The government has spent more than $65 million tackling
Dr Betty said a lot of focus was on treating sore throats but
this study opened new ways of thinking about how to prevent it.
"The whole thing ties up with diet and sugary drinks and the
sugar story, I think it has a role to play in terms of dental
problems and it's an aspect of health care that I think needs some
serious, serious focus."
Dr Thornley said his study was still to be published and needed
further research but his next step was to make the link between
rotten teeth and other childhood diseases including glue ear,
asthma and cancer.