Inuit officials in Nunavut are demanding better dental care in northern communities, after a recent Health Canada report found that Inuit are more prone to tooth decay than other Canadians, but many do not see a dentist.
Health Canada's Inuit Oral Health Survey, released in March, found that only 49.8 per cent of Inuit had visited a dental care provider, compared to 74.5 per cent of southern Canadians.
But the need to see a dentist is great. The survey found that more than 85 per cent of Inuit preschoolers have cavities or other kinds of decay in eight of their baby teeth, on average.
Most of that tooth decay goes untreated, resulting in a lot of decayed, filled and missing teeth. The survey found almost 98 per cent Inuit adolescents have tooth decay, and the number of decayed, missing or filled permanent teeth goes up as they get older.
"We see a much higher rate of teeth being extracted, and children losing their teeth," Dr. Stephen Partyka, a dentist who runs a busy practice in Iqaluit, told CBC News on Thursday.
"It's very disturbing…. At times, it's depressing."
Partyka blamed the high rates of dental problems on unhealthy diets and smoking — a finding that is backed by the Health Canada survey, which cited high rates of tobacco use, overcrowded housing and food insecurity among Inuit in northern communities.
No regular dental care in many communities
The Health Canada survey surveyed 1,216 Inuit adults and children in 2008 and 2009. The research was done in partnership with Inuit groups in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The study found, among other things, that almost 73 per cent of older Inuit adults who were surveyed needed some kind of dental care, nearly double the number of older adults elsewhere in Canada.
But dental service does not exist in most Nunavut communities. In many cases, dentists from southern Canada fly up to remote northern communities for a week or so at a time.
Priscilla Tungilik said she remembers when she lived in Repulse Bay, Nunavut, and had to wait for a dentist to visit her community before she could get a serious tooth infection treated.
"It even came to the point where I took eight extra-strength Tylenol to numb the pain," Tungilik recalled.
"Dentists don't come up north very often and we often have to wait for so long."
Tungilik now lives in Edmonton, where she said her children see a dentist regularly.
More dental professionals needed: NTI
Officials with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., one of the groups involved in the survey, say the lack of dentists and dental hygienists in Nunavut is a problem. They suggest that the Nunavut government consider training its own dental professionals.
"We'd need to build awareness and build an interest from students to go into this field in the first place," said Natan Obed, Nunavut Tunngavik's director of social and cultural development.
"We'd hopefully look for partnership arrangements with a southern-based institution that delivers these services, and then look for a way to deliver the academic portion of the program here in Nunavut and possibly in the institution as well, wherever it may be."
Obed said the Nunavut government also needs to do a better job of promoting oral hygiene and preventing oral disease.
"Here we borrow from other jurisdictions, but we don't have a Nunavut-made oral health, oral hygiene-type promotional program that is drilled into parents and drilled into children in school," he said.
Obed said Inuit groups will use the findings of the Health Canada survey to push for action.