FDI calls for global action on oral health at the 71st World Health Assembly

31 May 2018 WHO

The 71st World Health Assembly (WHA71) recently took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 21-26 May. In his moving closing address to the Assembly, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized that “health has the power to transform an individual’s life, but it also has the power to transform families, communities and nations.”

#WHA71 ©L. Cipriani

This year’s Assembly reviewed a diverse range of health topics with notable deliberations on issues affecting healthcare professionals and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

The World Health Professions Alliance (WHPA), comprising dentists (FDI), physicians, nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists, made four statements to the Assembly on issues including the draft 13th General Programme of Work, mHealth, health, environment and climate change, and health emergencies.

As the only organization representing the oral health community at WHA71, FDI delivered statements to the Assembly on three key agenda items:

  • preparation for the upcoming United Nations (UN) High-level meeting (HLM) on NCDs;
  • using digital applications (mHealth) to enhance public health outcomes; and
  • maternal, infant and young child nutrition.

Preparation for the UN High-level meeting on NCDs

FDI urged Member States to accelerate action on oral health. Oral diseases are among the most common and preventable NCDs, affecting almost 100% of the world’s population.

FDI emphasized that it is crucial for Member States to adopt an integrated approach that tackles the combined burden of oral diseases and other NCDs, by addressing common modifiable risk factors and social determinants. Major oral diseases and other NCDs are closely linked and share modifiable risk factors including unhealthy diets (particularly ones high in sugar), tobacco and harmful use of alcohol.

In the time available before the next UN HLM, FDI encouraged Member States to address oral health within their national NCD action plans and strategies, consult with their National Dental Associations (NDAs) and NCD coalitions, and ensure Heads of State/Government attend the UN HLM.

FDI also recommended three critical outcomes for the upcoming UN HLM. First, integration of oral health perspectives within the HLM outcome document. Second, an accountability and monitoring mechanism with time-bound and measurable oral health commitments. Third, increased investment for NCD prevention and control including oral diseases.

mHealth

With rapid advances in digital technologies, FDI commended the UN for its leadership in supporting the scale up of mHealth.

According to the UN Secretariat Report, 121 countries have already adopted national eHealth strategies. FDI thus encouraged Member States to work closely with their NDAs when developing and implementing national eHealth strategies.

FDI emphasized the potential of mHealth to not only change the global health service delivery landscape, but also to improve the collation of information on knowledge gaps. Committed to bridging the oral health data gap, FDI described how it has established the Oral Health Observatory (OHO) and rolled out an OHO mobile app to analyze the oral healthcare needs of patients and dental practitioners. FDI stressed the value of such a resource in providing standardized oral health data to policymakers for developing mHealth services and integrating oral health.

FDI also strongly recommended that Member States provide oral health education and training to other healthcare professionals to achieve better health outcomes for patients and communities.

Maternal, infant and young child nutrition

FDI stressed that more needs to be done to improve the oral health of pregnant women, infants and young children. Pregnancy in particular causes many hormonal changes in women that can increase the likelihood of developing periodontal diseases, including gingivitis and periodontitis. Maternal periodontal disease may be associated with an increased risk for preterm birth and low birth weight. FDI therefore urged governments to increase the availability and access to oral health services within maternal health services.

FDI also emphasized that it is imperative for countries to implement interventions aimed at reducing the sugar intake of children. Sugar is the primary cause of dental caries and a major contributor to other NCDs including obesity. In fact, dental caries (tooth decay) is the most common chronic childhood disease affecting up to 90% of school-age children. FDI encouraged Member States to consult WHO’s guideline on sugar intake for adults and children as well as FDI’s practical guide on sugars and dental caries.

Finally, FDI addressed how breast-milk substitutes which contain free sugars are putting children at risk of developing Early Childhood Caries (ECC). ECC is caused by frequent and prolonged exposure of the teeth to sugar and is often the result of a child going to bed with a bottle of a sweetened drink or drinking at will from a bottle during the day. FDI called upon Member States to strengthen legislation on the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, particularly on the marketing and product formulation of breast-milk substitutes.

The World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.

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