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Call to improve health inequities for Pasifika and Māori after water fluoridation order

Hāpai te Hauora Chief Executive Officer; Selah Hart. Photo: NZ Doctor
Aden Miles Morunga | Local Democracy Reporter

Pasifika and Māori health provider Hāpai Te Hauora is welcoming the Ministry of Health’s order to add fluoride to Cambridge’s water, but says more needs to be done to address health inequities.

Chief executive Selah Hart says any preventative measure that protects whānau from tooth decay is beneficial.

“We understand from a public health perspective, the protective factors that can be achieved across the population when water fluoridation occurs. We are however very mindful that this must also be done with a robust combination of public health measures,” Hart says.

It follows the directive earlier this week that 14 local authorities – including Waipa District Council – should add fluoride to the water supply.

But Hart says wider long-standing issues need to be addressed too, calling for an increase of the “plethora of protection mechanisms” to improve poor dental health for children.

“We need to quickly address access to sugar sweetened beverages in areas close to schools, ECE and other community settings. We need to explore the impacts of the unhealthy food industry and what are their responsibilities to compensate for the harms they are causing to individuals and communities across Aotearoa.”

Hart also says it is important to empathise with the position many families are in, and to not stigmatise people who cannot readily access healthy food and drink.

“We also need to look at strategies that enable easier to cheaper, high quality fruit and veges, as well as addressing the poverty on food security and food sovereignty, which all have impacts of food purchase and diet selection.”

After hearing the directive from the Ministry, a Waipa District Council spokesperson says it does not fluoridate any of its water systems currently.

Council was contacted in May of this year by the Director-General of Health, seeking information on its readiness to fluoridate, as well as estimated costs and timeframes to install necessary infrastructure in Cambridge.

Council provided estimates for that work with projected expenses around $480,000 for capital costs plus annual operating costs of $140,000.

In its response to the directive, Council noted it had no funding allocated for either the capital or operational costs associated with the fluoridation of water supplies in Cambridge or elsewhere in the district.

The government has invited the 14 local authorities to apply for a portion of an $11.3 million fund for capital projects to enable fluoridation.

This week’s directive was the first time the power has been used since a law change last year to enable it.

After being questioned by Local Democracy Reporting on why Cambridge’s water supply was identified ahead of others in the region, the Ministry says there are a number of factors at play including local authority’s ability to fluoridate quickly and the size of the population.

“In deciding which local authorities and water supplies to consider first, the Director-General of Health considered a number of factors including, local authority ability to implement fluoridation swiftly, and the size and needs of populations served by the relevant water supplies.”

The Director-General of Health is likely to actively consider whether to issue further instructions to fluoridate later this year.

For Selah Hart, the “big ticket item” above all still remains.

“We must urgently include dental health in our free public healthcare system to remove all financial barriers to dental services.”

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