OBJECTIVES: To determine trends in dental caries prevalence, severity and unmet treatment need levels amongst South African
children. METHODOLOGY: Data obtained from three National Oral Health surveys (1982, 1988/89, 1999/2002) was used. RESULTS: Prevalence of caries amongst 12-year-old children decreased from 64.4% (1982) through 54.9% (1988/89) to 41.7% (1999/2002) and the DMFT decreased significantly (p<0.05) from 2.54 (1982) through 1.73 (1988/89) to 1.17 (1999/2002).
Unmet treatment need increased from 70.5% (1982), 72.3% (1988/89) to 75.2% (1999/2002). Significant decreases (p<0.05)
were recorded in the DMFT (1982-2002) in White, 75.3%; Asian, 64.1%; Black, 49.8%; and Coloured groups, 44.8%. High levels
of untreated caries (D) and very low levels of treatment (M and F) were also observed. The highest mean dmft/DMFT for 6- and
12-year-olds respectively were recorded in the coastal areas of Metro Cape (5.1/1.86); followed by Port Elizabeth (3.86/1.37) and
Durban (3.42/1.33); and the lowest in the interior - Bloemfontein (2.47/0.73).
CONCLUSIONS: Caries reduced significantly during the past 20 years; is more prevalent and severe amongst Coloured and Black
population groups and in coastal regions compared to the interior region. Unmet treatment need in 12- and 15-year-old children increased and more than 70% of caries in 6-, 12- and 15-year-old children go untreated.