Kids’ dental health put in the spotlight
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.