Oral health is an important component of overall health and quality of life. Poor oral health can affect adults and children alike, causing pain, embarrassment, and even social marginalisation. For children, the effects can be long term and carry through to adulthood.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more likely than non‑Indigenous children to experience tooth decay. A number of factors contribute towards the poorer oral health of Indigenous children in general, such as poverty, social disadvantage, diet and lack of access to dental services.

For the past 10 years, the Australian Government has helped fund oral health services for Indigenous children under the age of 16 in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment Oral Health Program (NTRAI OHP) provides preventive (application of full‑mouth fluoride varnish and fissure sealants) and clinical (tooth extractions, diagnostics, restorations and examinations) services.

This report presents data from the NTRAI OHP for 2017, and includes long‑term analyses from 2009 to 2017.

How many children received services?

In 2017, over 11,000 services were delivered to Indigenous children in the Northern Territory under the NTRAI OHP:

  • Almost 5,000 children received 5,600 full‑mouth fluoride varnish services. This was an increase of around 400 children from 2016.
  • 1,600 children received 1,800 fissure sealant services. This was a decrease of nearly 400 children from 2016.
  • 3,300 children received 4,200 clinical services, such as dental assessments, fillings, extractions or orthodontic services. This was a slight decrease of around 100 children from 2016.

Almost 9 in 10 Indigenous 6–9 year olds had tooth decay

Tooth decay varied by age, and in 2017, children aged 6–9 had the highest percentage of tooth decay (86%–88%). In comparison, less than half of children aged 1–3 had tooth decay (43%).

While the oral health of children in the program has generally improved since 2009, the proportion of 11 year olds with tooth decay has increased (from 69% to 75%).

How many decayed, missing or filled teeth?

A widely used indicator to measure oral health status is a count of the number of decayed, missing or filled teeth.

On average, in 2017, children in the NTRAI OHP aged 5 had the highest average number of decayed, missing or filled baby teeth (DMFT = 6) while children aged 15 had the highest average number of decayed, missing or filled permanent teeth (DMFT = 3).

Is the NTRAI Oral Health Program meeting its benchmarks?

The NTRAI OHP has performance indicators and benchmarks to monitor its outcomes. In 2017, all of the clinical and preventive service delivery targets were met (Table S1).

Service delivery targets


At least 3,800 occasions of clinical service per year 4,274 occasions of clinical services in 2017
At least 5,531 fluoride varnish applications 5,627 fluoride varnish applications provided 2017
Fissure sealant applications to at least 4,500 teeth in 2017 Fissure sealant applications to 7,695 teeth in 2017
Health outcome targets  
At least 50% of total service items are preventative services

82% of total service items were preventative in 2017