Kids’ den­tal health put in the spot­light

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAN HOLTMEYER

Many par­ents don’t know it’s im­por­tant to take care of their kids’ baby teeth, den­tists and health or­ga­ni­za­tions said this week.

“A lot of baby teeth will stay in their mouth un­til they’re 12 years of age,” said Dr. Amanda Hank­ins with Smile Shoppe Pe­di­atric Den­tistry in Rogers.

Those nubs of enamel af­fect what kind of food kids can eat, how they learn to speak and how healthy the rest of their bod­ies are, po­ten­tially in­flu­enc­ing their den­tal health for a life­time, she said.

Den­tal health groups are draw­ing at­ten­tion to needs and mis­con­cep­tions dur­ing Fe­bru­ary, which the Amer­i­can Den­tal As­so­ci­a­tion de­votes to chil­dren’s den­tal health. Im­prov­ing den­tal health at all ages is par­tic­u­larly ur­gent in Arkansas, which ranks near last among the states in tooth loss and how few peo­ple see a den­tist at least once a year, ac­cord­ing to the an­nual Amer­ica’s Health Rank­ings from the Min­nesota-based non­profit United Health Foun­da­tion.

The con­di­tion of some­one’s mouth af­fects im­mune re­sponse to dis­ease and heart health be­cause of its blood sup­ply, and also can give early warn­ings of other ill­nesses, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health.

Some of the ef­fort this month in­volves ed­u­ca­tion for par­ents, whom the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics urges to bring their chil­dren to the den­tist by 1 year of age or within a few months of their first tooth. Hank­ins said the first visit usu­ally in­cludes an exam and a gen­tle flu­o­ride treat­ment painted onto the child’s teeth to form a pro­tec­tive layer against de­cay.

Do­ing so can catch cav­i­ties or other is­sues be­fore they start and get chil­dren more com­fort­able in a den­tist’s of­fice, said Bob Ma­son, a re­tired Fort Smith den­tist and den­tal di­rec­tor for the not-for-profit Delta Den­tal of Arkansas in­sur­ance com­pany. He said vis­it­ing the den­tist should be­come as nor­mal as check­ups with a pe­di­a­tri­cian.

Delta and other groups also are boost­ing den­tal ser­vices around North­west Arkansas, par­tic­u­larly for low-in­come or unin­sured peo­ple. Delta’s foun­da­tion this year will give $400,000 in grants to clin­ics through­out the state. Al­most $70,000 went this week to North­west Arkansas’ low-cost Com­mu­nity Clinic, which has lo­ca­tions from Rogers to Lin­coln, and to free ser­vices at Fayet­teville’s pub­lic schools and the city’s Wel­comeHealth clinic.

“We re­ally want to work within the com­mu­nity,” said Kara Wilkins, Delta spokes­woman.

Wel­comeHealth pro­vides free den­tal ser­vices to sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple a year who lack den­tal in­sur­ance and have in­comes be­low a cer­tain level. So many peo­ple need so much work that the wait­ing list is two or three months long, Di­rec­tor Monika Fis­cher-Massie has said.

The group got $24,000 from Delta, part of which will pay for equip­ment needed to pro­vide ser­vices to chil­dren. Brit­tney Gul­ley, the clinic’s de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor, said the clinic hopes to be­gin pe­di­atric care by sum­mer and take up to 200 young pa­tients a year.

“We are still wait­ing to pur­chase an X-ray sen­sor that’s small enough for a child’s mouth,” Gul­ley said, adding the clinic al­ready has the sup­plies for sealants and flu­o­ride treat­ments.

“We would love to start just do­ing what we can. But cer­tainly, to get a good look at their mouth, we need X-rays.”

An­other $14,300 went to the Fayet­teville Youth Den­tal Pro­gram, a part­ner­ship be­tween the city’s pub­lic schools and North­west Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s den­tal as­sis­tant cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. Al­most 300 stu­dents per year who lack in­sur­ance but have aching teeth or other dis­tract­ing prob­lems use the ser­vice, said Joy Shirley, the district’s stu­dent ser­vices di­rec­tor.

“The clinic also does work with the fam­ily to help them get ARKids set up,” she said, re­fer­ring to the state’s Med­i­caid pro­gram for chil­dren that in­cludes den­tal cov­er­age. “We’re just try­ing to help kind of fill in that gap un­til they can get what they need.”

Delta has sup­ported the clinic for at least four or five years, said Glenda Lee, a reg­is­tered den­tal as­sis­tant who di­rects the col­lege pro­gram. The grant cov­ers sealant ma­te­rial, in­stru­ment re­place­ments and tooth­brush kits. Lee’s stu­dents as­sist sev­eral den­tists who vol­un­teer their time.

“It is im­por­tant for them to see the den­tist on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, to find these things that can be taken care of, fix the small things while they’re small things,” she said of the chil­dren.

Fayet­teville schools and Wel­comeHealth are just two of many groups tack­ling den­tal needs, par­tic­u­larly among peo­ple with low in­comes. Wash­ing­ton Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter’s mo­bile den­tal clinic has taken care of 2,000 peo­ple since it opened in 2014, and Ron­ald McDon­ald House Char­i­ties of Arkoma runs a mo­bile clinic aimed at chil­dren. Sa­mar­i­tan Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Rogers and Spring­dale also pro­vides free den­tal ser­vices.

Wilkins said Delta is work­ing with Arkansas Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal to sur­vey chil­dren’s den­tal health needs for the first time since 2010, with re­sults ex­pected this fall that can guide fu­ture work. The goal is to get kids cav­ity-free by 2025, she said.

“The need is def­i­nitely in­creas­ing,” Hank­ins said, point­ing out al­most half of chil­dren have cav­i­ties by kinder­garten. But early vis­its can make all the dif­fer­ence, she added. For her, go­ing to a friendly den­tist’s of­fice in her ear­li­est years in­spired her to en­ter pe­di­atric den­tistry.

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