Background: Poor oral health of seafarers is known to cause pain and suffering for individuals and logistical complications for shipping companies during voyages. The aim of the study was to discuss the oral health of seafarers against the backdrop of available publications.
Material and methods: A systematic review of all literature listed in PubMed up to August 2010 plus a hand search analysing origin of article, target group, data presented, and recommendations given. Excluded were papers on forensic dental identification and papers on mercy ships.
Results: Most articles deal with oral health issues in the military, are published in English, and originate from the US or Great Britain. Screening systems, organisation of dental services, and the provision of dental treatment ashore and aboard are dominant themes. Papers dealing with the merchant navy, fishing vessels, and cruise ships crews mostly present basic epidemiological data, focus on oral health at sea, and originate from industrialised countries. The growing numbers of cruise ship passengers is the subject of seven studies. Generally, dental care offered to navy crews appears more comprehensive than that offered to civilian crews.
Conclusions: The research base needs to be expanded to cover all seafarers. Dental professional expertise should be sought in policy and guideline development relevant to oral health. A strategy comprising preventive, screening, and treatment service components should be developed and a certificate of dental health introduced. Funding strategies in a complex environment of transnational stakeholders for the improvement of oral-health services for seafarers are needed. Aspects of military oral health care systems could be an example for civilian operators.