5 Aug 2021

Remembering 100 years of free dental care for NZ children

11:19 am on 5 August 2021

New Zealand is marking 100 years of free dental care for children this year, and while the oral health of most people has undoubtedly improved for many older kiwis the service will always be associated - rightly or wrongly - with the dreaded Murder House aka the school dental clinic.

cropped shot of dentist with instruments examining teeth of little child

Photo: 123rf.com

The state-funded School Dental Service started in 1921 to combat the nation's poor oral health following World War One.

The first entirely female draft of dental nurses graduated two years later - skilled in the use of the pedal-powered treadle dental drill which was often used without anaesthetic.

New Plymouth pensioner Mel Harper remembered the drill well.

"Oh painful in one word. It wasn't pleasant. They used to pump them to get the old whirligig going so they could get the revs up so they could then drill. It was awful."

He was not the only person on the high street with clear memories of the school dental clinic.

Chris was not a fan.

"Yes I remember going to the Murder House ... pretty horrific memories. I remember one time my father had to actually come in and hold me down because I refused to open my mouth."

Vicki remembered the anxiety in the classroom when it was time to visit the clinic.

"The dreaded note that would come back, you know, the previous patient would come into the classroom with a note with the next person's name on it and everybody would dive for cover under their desks because they didn't want to go. But it was a great service because we didn't have fluoridated water."

Dental nurse Lois Harrop says New Zealand's dental service for children has gone from strength to strength

Dental nurse Lois Harrop says New Zealand's dental service for children has gone from strength to strength Photo: RNZ/ Robin Martin

The treadle drill has long gone, along with the School Dental Service which became the Community Oral Health Service in 2006 and now offers free dental care for people aged 18 and under.

Central and South Taranaki dental therapist co-ordinator Lois Harrop trained as a dental nurse in 1971 and said there was a lot to do.

"People don't really think about teeth decay and why they decay and it appears many many children had a great deal of work done during those years and teeth were filled, but we know that historically people didn't know how to look after their teeth. They were not using toothbrushes regularly and the big thing was there was no fluoride in the water and so teeth generally were in poor condition."

Harrop said the Murder House was an outdated term which confused today's children who had mostly good experiences.

Parents were also much more involved in their child's treatment these days.

"Gone are the days ... and this is perhaps where the Murder House thing came about ... when we were able to take children out from class and just treat them and the parents knew very little about what we had decided to do or what the child needed done or how they could help them to stop this continuing."

The new approach is one that Alicia Smith, who was at the Rangiatea clinic in New Plymouth with two of her four children, enjoyed.

"Yeah I do appreciate being in there getting told the step by step process that's happening and Danielle, who's just come in, she used to do my teeth and I'm nearly 40. She used to do my teeth at high school so she's now doing my kids and she's excellent."

Harrop said she had witnessed the service go from strength to strength in terms of the equipment and materials dental therapists were using now and the acceptance of the importance of dental care.

"When I see a child now I want to believe explicitly that they will keep their teeth forever and that is my job to ensure that I instil in them a sense that their teeth are important and their smile is definitely important and that they will have their teeth for... and I always say 100 years."

But Harrop said tooth decay remained stubbornly high among pre-schoolers in socially-deprived areas, but the cure was readily at hand - supervised brushing of children's teeth twice a day and no fizzy drinks.

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