Introduction: The purpose of this study was to: (1) describe caries prevalence and experience among Aboriginal children; and (2) investigate the disparity in dental caries between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian children. As background, dental caries is a widespread disease within Aboriginal communities and it has a particularly severe impact on children. In recognition of the extent and severity of this disease, its impact on childhood nutrition, socialisation and schooling, the control of dental caries has been identified as a key indicator in the reduction of disadvantage among Aboriginal communities.
Methods: Medline was the primary database used in the literature search. Other databases included: PubMed, Web of Science and Google Scholar. Australian National and State departments of health websites were also searched for relevant documents. Articles were included in the review if they reported information on either caries prevalence rates or experience scores or both, for Aboriginal children in Australia. Articles were excluded if the study sample was special needs children, and/or caries statistics were reported only for children over 12 years.
Results: Caries prevalence among 6-year-olds in rural non-fluoridated Western Australia in 1963 was 27%, and in 2004 was 85% among 6-year-olds in rural non-fluoridated Queensland. There was a corresponding increase in caries experience scores in this period from 2.07 in 1963 to 6.37 in 2004. National estimates for 2000-2003 reported a caries prevalence of 72% and caries experience (dmft: decayed, missing and filled primary teeth) of 3.68 for 6-year-old Aboriginal Australian children. For 12-year-olds the national estimates were a caries prevalence of 45% and experience (DMFT, Decayed, Missing and Filled Permanent Teeth) of 1.25 (SE=0.07). The magnitude of disparity (relative difference) in 6-year-old caries experience between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children was relatively consistent over the period 1983-2007, with Aboriginal children having an approximately two-fold higher caries experience score. The 2000-2003 national estimates for caries experience showed that Aboriginal 6-year-olds had a dmft score that was 2.38 times higher than non-Aboriginal children (3.68 vs 1.54). For the 12-year-olds, the magnitude of disparity was not as marked, though the direction was similar.
Conclusion: Both caries prevalence and experience are higher in the primary dentition. In rural Queensland and the Northern Territory there are high caries rates for both 6- and 12-year-olds. Rural Aboriginal children are generally at a disadvantage compared with their urban counterparts. The magnitude of disparity in caries rates appears to be relatively unchanged over time but there is indication that it may be increasing. This raises the issue of health inequity and the need to fund practical, culturally appropriate and sustainable preventive programs. It also indicates the urgent need for more research on the determinants of oral health inequalities.