Stopping pediatric dental disease

September 1, 2007

Promoting pediatric oral health and hygiene

Keypoints:

It's why some kids can't eat. Why they can't sleep. Why they can't pay attention in class to anything other than their pain. Two Surgeons General have called it the number one chronic childhood disease in America.

The culprit? Pediatric periodontal disease.

One of the biggest problems in children's oral health is that the children who are most in need of it often don't have a dentist, or even a pediatrician. These at-risk children are often from families without insurance or Medicaid. Unfortunately, they fall through the health system cracks.

Its various programs do more than just hand out toothpaste. They teach proper oral hygiene, including flossing, using a soft toothbrush, and brushing your tongue. They combine education, treatment, and prevention to give children all the tools and knowledge they need to maintain a healthy mouth.

The programs are varied, to better handle the communities they serve. Standalone clinics exist in four locations in California and one in Texas. Three states have comprehensive health care facilities, with medical and dental providers covering inside and outside the mouth. Over a half-dozen states also have university- and hospital-based clinics. And there are two "field trip" dental facilities in California, visiting health fairs, schools, and group homes in a bookmobile-style van.

The program's aims are as big as the problem it's addressing; it wants to treat over five million children in the next decade, and educate twenty million. Over a dozen companies have contributed funds, including Advanstar Communications, which publishes Contemporary Pediatrics.

Often, poor oral health care is part of a cycle: children who never learned basic brushing habits grow up to have sore gums and rotting teeth, and pass on their disease and bad habits to their kids. Proper tooth care isn't expensive, even for people on a tight budget. For a few dollars a year, and a bit of education, every child can have a smile they don't have to hide.

How pediatricians can help

Pediatricians can do their part to help their patients keep good oral health, especially at-risk children. Dental diseases can be passed from parent to child, according to Giuseppina Romano-Clarke, MD, a dental educator. "Do a lot of education with parents right off the bat," at the prenatal visit. Encourage them to brush their baby's teeth, see a dentist by the first birthday, eat right, and floss any two teeth that touch.

At its worst, pediatric periodontal disease can do much more than rot teeth, notes Ingber. She related the story of a 12-year-old boy from Maryland who had a bad toothache from an infection. His mother couldn't find a dentist who accepted Medicaid, and she didn't have the money to pay for the abscessed tooth's removal. The 12-year-old died after the infection entered his brain.

He won't be the last child with bad oral health care, but with help from NCOHF, and efforts from pediatricians, he will hopefully be the last child to die of it.