FLUORIDE-enriched milk could soon be available in Darlington schools to help stem an alarming rise in tooth decay.

Yesterday Darlington primary care group heard that the borough was among the five worst areas in the country for dental decay in five-year-olds.

Dr David Landes, consultant in dental public health with County Durham and Darlington health authority, revealed that an examination of 6,200 five-year-olds across the county also placed Darlington and the dales as the worst in the region, a position Dr Landes blamed largely on youngsters' lack of fluoride intake.

In Darlington, 56pc of five-year-olds studied had experienced dental disease and 52pc already had active tooth decay. Only 8pc had received one or more fillings.

Among the worst-hit were youngsters living in the Skerne Park, Firthmoor and Branksome areas.

Across the dales, the figures were higher with 60pc of youngsters having had some dental disease by the age of five. Fifty-six per cent had active decay and 14pc had received fillings.

Dr Landes told the board: "Since 1987, overall dental health in England has been improving but in Darlington and County Durham it has deteriorated rapidly.

"The areas which show the worst decay mirror socially deprived areas which could point to families not being able to afford fluoride toothpaste or toothbrushes.

"Fluoride prevents tooth decay. Water fluoridisation is the way forward but it needs primary legislation. The Human Rights Act also makes this whole area difficult.

"There is, however, much evidence to support fluoride in milk.

"Putting one-third of a pint of milk in front of children will have an enormous effect on oral health and other diseases later in life."

Mr Ken Strider, deputy director of public health for Tees health authority, told members action was needed now.

He said: "There is not a moment to lose in addressing this problem. Oral health mirrors deprivation very closely. Fluoride milk available in schools in socially deprived areas means the children will get it."

Health chiefs will present the statistics to Darlington council education department and hopes are high that fluoride-enriched milk will be available in nursery schools next year