Cavities have been called one of the most prevalent health conditions facing the United States today. They are so common that, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, an estimated 92 percent of adults have at least one cavity in their permanent teeth, and at least 42 percent of children ages 2 to 11 have at least one cavity in their baby teeth. But while some of these instances of tooth decay can be prevented by better oral care habits, some teeth are just more prone to cavities than others.
For those who feel like they go above and beyond what they need to do to protect their teeth but who still develop cavities between cleanings, there is new hope on the horizon. A team of scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hubei Sheng, China, is working on a vaccine that would permanently prevent cavities from forming in teeth.
Dr. Stephen Hill is a dentist practicing in Allen, Texas. He believes this vaccine could change lives, but he still has concerns.
"Patients who fear having cavities and getting fillings will often skip going to the dentist," says Hill. "So, eliminating that fear could be a potential lifesaver."
That’s because patients who skip their bi-annual exam could also be missing other problems lurking in their mouth, from periodontal disease to oral cancer.
"When you miss your exam, you may be allowing a treatable disease to progress and worsen," says Hill.
The problem with the vaccine, says Hill, is that this line of thinking could backfire.
"On the other hand, a patient who has had the vaccine may feel they don’t need to see the dentist because they know they have no cavities. So, they may end up going even longer between appointments," he says.
And then there’s the potential for patients who have had the vaccine to slack on their oral hygiene.
"Patients who have had the vaccine could be under the false impression that their teeth are invincible, and stop taking care of their oral health," says Hill. "They could stop brushing or flossing, or increase their sugar intake, which could affect their gums, weight and blood pressure, leaving them vulnerable to other diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes."
Additionally, Hill says improper oral hygiene can cause everything from enamel erosion to chipped or cracked teeth - things that the vaccine cannot prevent.
"The vaccine is a great idea, but it will need to go hand-in-hand with patient education so that people receiving the vaccine know that it’s not going to give them bionic teeth," he says. "They still need to brush and floss and see their dentist twice a year. There are so many more reasons to protect your teeth than to prevent cavities."