By now, we are all well-versed in the health problems associated with Covid-19. But the knock-on effects in other areas of healthcare are only beginning to become clear more than a year after lockdown became the new normality. From difficulties faced by cancer patients to the mental health consequences of being confined to our homes, the fallout from the pandemic has been deeply harmful in a whole range of areas.
But one of those areas has been largely neglected so far. The effects of Covid and lockdown on our dental health have been almost entirely absent from the public forum. Thanks to the cancellation of practically all non-emergency healthcare in order to focus finite resources on fighting coronavirus, the normal routine of regular check-ups and quick diagnoses has disappeared, which could have a very serious effect in the longer term.
As a result, a vast array of minor oral health conditions have probably gone unnoticed in the last year. They have therefore been allowed to fester and when they are eventually discovered once normal healthcare service has resumed and they have to be treated, much more serious and extensive procedures might be required.
The problem goes far beyond your teeth. Countless serious medical conditions start in the mouth and are first picked up on by dentists. Periodontitis, for instance, is a bacterial inflammation of the gum tissue which can cause bleeding. If left untreated, periodontitis can go on to cause other serious issues in a domino effect when that bacteria contaminates the bloodstream. Heart valve infections, abscesses and even life-threatening sepsis, which sometimes causes damage to multiple organ systems, can all come about because of an unaddressed problem in the gums.
Present this information to a politician – especially one in the current government – and their response would be quite predictable. On health policy, Boris Johnson’s nominally Conservative government has embraced the interventionist doctrine of the nanny state. Tax this, ban that. From advertising restrictions to sin taxes, ministers’ instinct when they identify what they deem to be a public health problems seems to be to interfere.
But the hidden dental health pandemic is a perfect example of why the free market, not the state, is best placed to tackle these kinds of problems. Cutting-edge scientific research is suggesting that the simple act of chewing can single-handedly solve a great deal of oral health problems, meaning that a product as simple and innocuous as sugar-free chewing gum might be a silver bullet to this whole category of issues.
When you chew, you produce saliva, which has myriad positive consequences including rebalancing the pH in your mouth and churning out countless healthy minerals like calcium and phosphate ions. Chewing sugar-free gum has other positive effects, too, from helping people quit smoking to reducing appetite, resulting in less snacking and therefore weight loss.
In other words, pioneering research is showing us that accessible, everyday products which are already on the market can address underlying public health concerns, without the disadvantages of a clattering intervention from the state.
The government likes to talk up post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ as a world leader in scientific research. If that is to be the case, it’s time to abandon the nanny state mindset and allow the free market – and our world-class universities and research institutes – to take up their rightful place on the front line of any and all public health battles. In the case of dental health, that is already happening – let’s just hope the government don’t take it upon themselves to interfere.