09:21 AM

Think Teeth: Kids’ dental health improving, but there is still work to be done

By Ralph Fuccillo, President, DentaQuest Foundation

A recent CDC report revealed promising news - early childhood caries in preschool-aged children is at its lowest rate in 25 years. Preventing oral disease at an early age leads to a lifetime of healthy smiles, and this achievement is one that should be celebrated.

However, tooth decay is the still most common chronic disease of early childhood — 5 times more common than asthma. Half of all kids experience tooth decay before age 12.

At the DentaQuest Foundation, as a part of our Oral Health 2020 goals, we’re working with a growing network of partners to ensure that 75 percent of children reach age five without experiencing tooth decay. Although we have made great strides in reaching this goal, there is still much to be done.

We all want the best for our children, but oral health doesn’t always get the attention some other health issues do. That’s why it’s especially striking to look at the research that points out how tooth decay can have long term impact on children’s lives. For example, children with poor oral health were nearly three times more likely to miss school, according to a study from the North Carolina Health Assessment and Monitoring Program. Children who reported recent toothaches were four times more likely to earn a lower grade-point average than peers reporting no dental pain.

Luckily, the most common chronic childhood disease is also almost completely preventable. We have identified many cost-effective, simple ways to reduce tooth decay. The cost of applying a decay-preventing dental sealant to a child’s permanent tooth is much less than the cost of filling a cavity, and ongoing maintenance of that restoration. To provide another example, would you believe that every $1 spent on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental costs? By providing early, preventive care, we can improve overall health and save costs for the long-term.

In addition to making dental care more cost-effective overall, programs such as Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) have made care more affordable for individuals. CHIP has been a critical source when it comes to providing dental coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private insurance. CHIP and Medicaid are already an oral health safety net for millions of children, covering services such as teeth cleanings, check-ups, x-rays and fluoride treatments.

Although CHIP currently ensures care for eight million children across the county, affordability will become a concern in the near future unless Congress chooses to extend CHIP funding before it expires in September. However, creating affordable care is only half the battle. An estimated 3.7 million children are eligible but not enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP, resulting in even more children who could miss out on preventive care merely because they are unaware of the benefits available to them.

Our duty to the next generation and their families is two-fold: to provide education on preventive oral health care and the benefits available to them, and to ensure that their preventive care stays affordable and accessible. If we can do this, our goals of improving the oral health of all are well within reach. However, if we do not follow through on both of these promises, it’s likely that much of our progress will be lost.

We can work together to make changes. These free materials have been developed so you can help families make good oral health habits, and provide tips for pregnant women, parents and caregivers. There are also resources, in both English and Spanish, to spread the word on social media.

Join us and others in this movement by visiting www.dentaquestfoundation.org to learn more. Share your stories and show your support for this movement by connecting with Oral Health 2020 on Twitter and Facebook.