As a populous province, Shandong Province has a population of nearly 100 million people. The current study collected eligible samples to represent the oral health status of this province and its cover areas with different dietary habits. Ultimately, out of a total of 1,330 children aged 3-5 years old, 1301 families provided complete and reliable data information, and the response rate was as high as 97.8%, which is very satisfying.
The caries prevalence rates for 3- to 5-year-old children in Shandong Province were 51.1%, 67.8% to 73.9%, respectively, which are all higher than the national levels (50.8%, 63.6%, 71.9%, respectively), while the dmft mean and the untreated rate of dental caries are lower than the national data (3.15 vs 3.35; 96.4% vs 96.9%). Other developing countries in Asia, such as Thailand (age 5: 78.5%), Indonesia (age 0-5: 70.0%), Myanmar (age 5-6: 81.3%) and Cambodia (age 3: 84.9%) all have higher rates of ECC compared to those of Shandong Province. In developed countries such as Japan and Singapore, the ECC rates are down to 44.4% and 49%, respectively[23, 24], which are significantly lower than the worldwide result of 63% obtained by statistics; these countries have also already achieved the WHO’s goal of having less than a 50% prevalence rate of ECC for the year 2020. These data alert us that there is still a long and hard way to go to reduce the prevalence of ECC in Shandong Province, China.
Age has been evidenced to be an independent risk factor for ECC by many studies[14, 22, 27], and this finding was corroborated in the current study. Most studies, however, evaluate 3- to 5-year-old children as whole, with no study assessing the risk factors for each age. Therefore, we speculated that although the age span used in the current study is small, different ages may have different risk factors. Both the chi-square tests and the logistic regression model in the present study confirm this speculation (Table 2-4). Although different age groups share caries-related risk factors—the experience of toothache over the past year—the increased risk for ECC in children aged 3 is independently associated with the feeding method within 6 months after birth, while that of the 5-year-old children is primarily associated with the frequency of bedtime sweet consumption. This heterogeneity indicates that we should have different priorities in regard to OHE for preschool children of different ages.
The association between feeding method and ECC is intricated and involves a variety of factors, including the frequency, duration, amount, time and formula type of the feeding. Previous studies have reported that breastfeeding and its duration are not associated with an increased risk of ECC, yet studies have also found that both prolonged breastfeeding and high-frequency feeding in late infancy augment the risk of having dental caries[28, 29]. Interestingly, Van Palenstein et al. reported that breastfeeding during daylight hours beyond the age of 12 months was not associated with ECC for 25- to 30-month-old infants; rather, the relevant factor is that of breastfeeding at night >2 times and exposing the child to >15 minutes per nocturnal feeding. Although the current study also provides evidence that breastfeeding has a greater adverse impact on ECC than that of artificial feeding, which is similar to the results of national studies completed 10 years ago, no more detailed information about the duration, frequency, time, and formula type were collected; thus, it is difficult to analyse and attain those specific factors that may have caused such outcomes. After all, the high cariogenicity of bottle feeding has also been confirmed by many studies. One recent study has contributed evidence for the nonlinear association between breastfeeding duration and ECC and the auxiliary role of fluoridated water in reducing the negative effects of feeding on ECC. This finding reminds us that more relevant variables need to be considered in future studies to elucidate the correlation between feeding methods and ECC.
Frequent exposure to dietary sugar and refined carbohydrates is well recognized to be associated with ECC[34-37], and bedtime sweet consumption is particularly serious[35, 38]. Excessive sugar consumption provides abundant nutrients for supragingival microorganisms and induces acid production, enamel-dentine demineralization, and caries formation[12, 39]. The limitation of sugar consumption has therefore been listed in a declaration that has gained worldwide support. Interestingly, the data from the present study found that the increase in the frequency of bedtime sweet consumption was not an independent risk factor for ECC in children aged 3 or 4, it was only so for children aged 5 years. It is not possible from these data to conclude that there is no need to pay attention to the sugar consumption habits of those under 4 years old because sweet preference has been evidenced to be a high risk factor for ECC in children under 23 months of age in Japan. Leroy et al. and Schluter et al. also confirmed that bedtime sweet consumption is significantly associated with ECC for children aged 3 and 4. Accordingly, it is possible that the outcomes of previous undesirable sugar consumption habits manifested in those 5 years old in the current study and thus seen to be an independent risk factor for the current study sample. This is in full compliance with the actions of time factors in the pathogenesis of dental caries. Therefore, even though sugar consumption habits in this study were only risk factors for the 5-year-old age group, knowledge transmission and behavioural interventions should be carried out early in life.
Previous studies have found that infrequent dental visits were correlated with an augmented risk for untreated caries[43, 44]. Some studies, however, have reported a positive association between the number of dental visits and ECC prevalence[14, 45]. This finding is consistent with the results of the current study. Unfortunately, this result goes against the goal of oral prevention. The design of the dental visit is expected to play a positive and energetic role in caries prevention; however, 51.8% of families in the present study sought help from a dentist for treatment compared with only 7.8% who sought help for prevention. An Australian study has reported that dental visits actually contribute 30.3% to the explanation of inequalities in ECC. This result indicates that our awareness of prevention is still insubstantial and that the purpose of dental visits is incorrectly implemented as more for treatment and rarely for prevention. This definition is one of the priorities that we need to improve.
Toothbrushing has always been considered to be the primary and most effective way to clean plaque microbes and prevent dental caries. Many studies have confirmed the association between toothbrushing and ECC[47, 48]. Some studies have also verified that there is no correlation between these two variables[49, 50], which is consistent with the results of the present study. Abdelaziz et al. reported that brushing was not an independent risk factor for ECC and S-ECC in preschool children. Edward Lo even found that supplemental training in regard to parental toothbrushing would not benefit the reduction of ECC for those children under 3 years of age who lived in a water-fluoridated area and had been provided with sufficient OHE. However, the sure thing is the relationship between the earlier the brushing time and the lower the ECC risk[15, 31], the present study also confirmed this trend through a bivariate analyses. Honestly, the interpretation of these results as being relevant to such issues is further limited due to the deficiency of information about brushing details; for example, brushing duration, brushing compliance, floss assistance, and especially brushing efficiency assessment are not available in our data. It is therefore difficult to objectively assess the association between toothbrushing and ECC in the scenario of many factors being masked or even neglected. However, the special dietary habits of Shandong Province, in which wheat is the main food ingredient, may be one of the reasons why toothbrushing was not demonstrated to be an independent risk factor for ECC. Further studies should include these variables so that we can attain a clearer picture of the role of toothbrushing in ECC prevention.
The results of the present study actually reflect the current status and issues of oral health education in Shandong Province. First, there is a sharp contrast between the high awareness of oral health routine knowledge (66%-98.8%) and the low access to oral prevention knowledge (16%-35.8%), a negative association between some correct knowledge and attitude variables (Q22d/e: sugar or bacteria can induce ECC; Q21c: dental health is related to self-protection.) and ECC risk (Appendix Table S1, Table 2-4), and a positive correlation between frequency of toothache or dental visits and ECC. All of these results reflect that the knowledge and information provided by the current OHE in Shandong Province appears to be inefficient and that it underperforms in promoting the implementation of ECC prevention practices. However, many studies have confirmed that when a more systematic, proactive oral health intervention involving brushing training, referrals and dental care is implemented for a family with children, even if implemented by nondental professionals, it generally has a greater preventive effect against ECC[46, 54-57]. Therefore, a systematic and sound oral health care programme that involves clinical care, brushing training, referrals and so on is imperative, rather than just oral health education. Only in this way can we ensure the consistency between theoretical knowledge and actual action as much as possible, thereby reducing the incidence rates of ECC. In addition, the risk factors for ECC at different ages (3-5 years old) are not completely consistent. In the current study, dental caries in the early stage of deciduous dentition (3 years old) is mainly related to feeding methods, while dental caries in the later stage of deciduous dentition (5 years old) is mainly associated with sugar-eating habits. These outcomes indicate that a more strategic and more targeted OHE method and content should be designed for children of different ages, which would also be more cost-effective. Finally, although a positive association between toothbrushing, the use of fluoride and the low risk of dental decay was not obtained in this study, the role of such an association in caries prevention is indeed indelible[15, 59, 60]. Therefore, assisting children to master this knowledge and these skills early in life is the responsibility of both dentists and parents.
In summary, we hope that these data will provide guidance and evidence for improving and refining the contents of oral health education. Based on the results of this study, we should have different focuses for different age groups. In the early stages of deciduous dentition (less than 3 years old), in addition to routinely introducing oral health knowledge and cultivating oral health awareness, we should emphasize the impact of feeding habits in infancy and early childhood on dental health. It seems inconclusive which feeding method (breastfeeding vs artificial milk feeding) is more beneficial to dental health, but issues such as feeding methods and frequency of night milk consumption deserve to be emphasized. As children get older, the training and mastery of certain oral health behaviours should become a priority, including sugar consumption habits and toothbrushing habits.
The main advantage of this study is its large representative sample of children and its high response rate; also, this study is part of the 4th National Oral Health Survey of China and thus has highly reliable data sources. Furthermore, this study is the first to report the oral health status of children in Shandong Province over the past decade. Limitations of the study include the issues related to the OHC knowledge and attitude items designed for the questionnaire being relatively basic and traditional. Several major risk factors have been incorporated into the current study, unlike the monographic studies that have excavated and explored sufficient detailed information about one certain targeting factor associated with ECC[29, 33, 52]. We also have to acknowledge that some data on detailed information is limited, such as the frequency of bedtime feedings, brushing efficiency, floss assistance status, and cariogenic microbial flora, each of which is reported to be associated with ECC. Therefore, more information is waiting to be collected to further analyse the risk factors associated with ECC for each age group.