Every February, the American Dental Association sponsors National Children’s Dental Health Month to raise awareness regarding the importance of oral health for children across the US. As Harbor Health Services Inc recognizes the significance of good oral health for children by hosting events within its communities along the Cape and in Boston for the third year, it is essential that we recognize the needs of children as well as the challenges and work that remain in reaching this goal.
Tooth decay continues to be the most prevalent chronic disease in children. According to a 2010 report by the United State’s surgeon general, more than 51 million school hours are lost annually due to dental related illness. Approximately 37% of children between the ages of 2-9 in low income families have one or more untreated decayed baby teeth, more than double than that of their higher income counterparts. Low income children are less likely to receive regular dental care and are much more apt to have untreated tooth decay.
Providing regular optimal dental care can offset and prevent eating and dietary problems; growth and development changes associated with premature tooth loss; speech issues as well as the negative socialization and emotional effects that can occur in the absence of dental treatment. Behavioral changes in children; a lack of confidence; changes in peer interactions as well as restricted activities—not only missed school, but diminished recreation and enrichment time—can also result.
A majority of parents still look to their primary care physician for their child’s oral health assessment at age one. Dentists are best equipped to be the primary resource for oral health information. Improving oral health literacy is job one for dental health professionals. Prevention and effective disease management involves good oral hygiene practices, adequate and appropriate fluoride intake and addressing dietary habits. However, in order to achieve real gains in prevention along with efficacious treatment and management of early childhood caries, effectual and active family management is needed.
Social and familial factors greatly influence the ability of parents to provide optimal oral health care to their children. Dietary changes as well as brushing and fluoride practices must have the support of the family as a whole on an ongoing, daily basis. The oral health practices of parents are typically replicated with their children. Deleterious beliefs and perceptions that parents have regarding baby teeth, tooth decay and premature tooth loss can have a profound impact on the oral health care and oral behaviors of their children. We know that early childhood caries can predispose a child for decay through adulthood.
As dentists, we need to continually inform and educate but we also must be aware of the harmful and undermining impact of a “blame” approach; whereby parents can perceive to be blamed or responsible for their child’s oral health status and extensive dental care needs.
Society and the dental profession both have to strive in closing the access to care gap. 80% of tooth decay occurs in those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas. If we are going to improve oral health as a society we have to commit to developing good habits, not simply regular dental visits. This means true access to healthy fresh foods, as opposed to refined sugars, carbohydrates and high fructose food options. The social context and normative pressures of dietary choices that parents face also need to be addressed and mitigated.
The reality is that too few receive the oral care that they need. A vast majority of dentists either limit or simply do not accept low income patients. According to a Pew Charitable Trust study, only 38.1% of Medicaid-enrolled children, ages 1 to 18, received any dental care in 2007. By comparison, for those with private insurance, 58 % of children receive treatment.
The financial costs for families can be burdensome, often too great to overcome. The costs are not limited to the dental care itself; the expenses for transportation, parking and dental supplies are typically quite great as well. However, the costs impact society as a whole and extend well beyond financial expenses. The social impact is far greater. As a non profit, public health agency dedicated to providing comprehensive, quality care to its constituents, Harbor Health Services Inc is all too familiar with the challenges and needs facing the communities we serve. Ultimately, we owe it to children to endeavor for making advancements in realizing ideal oral health care. National Children’s Dental Health Month should be a reminder of that ambition and duty.
For information about dental services at Geiger Gibson Community Health Center, Harbor Community Health Center-Hyannis and Ellen Jones Community Dental Center, please visit the Harbor Health Services, Inc. website.
To sign up your child for a FREE dental screening and fluoride treatment, please visit our Events page.