Half the world is affected by oral disease – here’s how we can tackle this unmet healthcare need

Oral diseases affect more people globally than many major diseases combined. A new report outlines how we can tackle the neglected oral health crisis.

Oral diseases are linked to a wide range of health issues, including diabetes, stroke, dementia, heart disease and more. Credit: Shedrack Salami on Unsplash
Oral diseases are linked to a wide range of health issues, including diabetes, stroke, dementia, heart disease and more. Credit: Shedrack Salami on Unsplash


Almost half the world's population is affected by oral diseases, and the number of cases is growing faster than the population. There are around a billion more cases of oral disease globally than cases of mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, and all cancers combined, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Oral disease puts people at greater risk of other diseases with links to diabetes, stroke and respiratory conditions. And it costs an estimated $710 billion a year in direct treatment costs and productivity losses.

But despite this, oral health remains a neglected global challenge – and it's disproportionately affecting the world's most vulnerable people.

To tackle these challenges, the World Economic Forum launched the Oral Health Affinity Group (OHAG) in 2023 under the Forum's Global Health Equity Network – a group of more than 50 companies committed to advancing health equity to create stronger and more productive societies.

new report by the group, titled 'The Economic Rationale for a Global Commitment to Invest in Oral Health', explores the economic rationale for investing in oral health and why healthcare systems need to consider the mouth alongside the rest of the body.

Three quarters of those affected by oral diseases live in middle income countries

Almost half the world is affected by oral diseases.

Why is the oral health need unmet?

There are multiple reasons for this high level of unmet oral health needs. In part, it is policy-related: dental care is often not treated as an essential healthcare need in the same way as other physical health complaints.

Most healthcare services – including those where care is mainly publicly funded – tend to treat oral health separately from rest-of-the-body health. Dental care is typically seen as a discretionary, privately financed healthcare service. This, in turn, leads to affordability issues.

Agreement over oral health connection to overall health among U.S. consumers as of 2021, by disease

Many consumers recognize the connection between oral health and rest-of-body health.
Image: Statista

Why is good oral health important?

Oral diseases are linked to a wide range of health issues, including diabetes, stroke, dementia, and heart disease, as well as mental health and pregnancy outcomes. So better oral health, in turn, reduces health spending elsewhere and affects health outcomes.

However, by treating dental care as a separate issue from rest-of-body care – often in entirely different locations—the connection between oral health and health more broadly is often underappreciated.

The impact of poor oral health also extends beyond the healthcare system. It leads to lost school days and working time and impacts productivity. This impact is more pronounced for low-income, vulnerable populations, meaning improving the oral healthcare system can also help close health equity gaps.

Percentage of adults in the United States who had at least one chronic health and one oral health problem in 2021 and 2022

More adults in the US have an oral health condition than a chronic health condition elsewhere in the body.
Image: Statista

What can we do about the oral health issue?

The OHAG report recommends several strategies to start tackling the problem. This includes actions by governments to create policies which help make dental services more affordable, such as integrating oral care within public health insurance programmes and universal health coverage policies.

Governments also have a role to play in improving oral health literacy, partnering with other organizations to advocate for better oral health.

The private sector, meanwhile, can have a positive impact on oral health by ensuring affordable access to fluoride toothpaste, oral hygiene products, and other products beneficial to oral health. It can also promote research and development into alternatives to products that are bad for oral health, such as sugary foods and drinks.

Companies should ensure that employer-provided insurance programmes include oral healthcare services.

The report also highlights the importance of civil society and how philanthropic investment in oral health activities can support health systems and improve the evidence base for oral health policy.

Written by

Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Forum Agenda


This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum on 23 May 2024.