U.S. children lacking in dental care, other preventive treatments

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo by Penn State via Flickr

Photo by Penn State via Flickr

A newly published federal study  finds that millions of American young people have been missing out on key preventive health care services, including simple treatments that can protect against tooth decay.

Fifty-six percent of the nation’s children did not see a dentist in 2009. That same year, a full 86 percent did not receive a dental sealant or topical fluoride treatment, two measures shown to greatly reduce cavities, according to the study, published Sept. 12 in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Meanwhile, oral disease remains prevalent among young people. Approximately 23 percent of children aged 2 to 11 years have at least one primary tooth with untreated decay and 20 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years have at least one permanent tooth with untreated decay, the report notes.

The poor bear the brunt of the disease. Tooth decay is more than twice as common among low-income children than among their more affluent peers. Mexican and black children are more likely to suffer from the disease than white children. Children with low fluoride exposure are also at higher risk.

In addition to preventive dental services, the report offers a variety of other instances where opportunities to offer clinical preventive services have been missed from before birth through young adulthood.

Here are some examples:

  • One in six pregnant women did not receive breastfeeding counseling during prenatal care visits in 2010.
  • More than 42 percent of U.S. infants who failed a hearing screening were not documented as receiving recommended follow-up services in 2009 – 2010.
  • Two thirds of children aged one through two years were not screened and reported to the CDC for lead poisoning lead poisoning in 2010.
  • Roughly one quarter of children and adolescents were not documented to have had their blood pressure measured during preventive care visits during 2007-2008 and 2009-2010.
  • Nearly half of girls aged 13–17 years sampled in 2011 had not yet received the recommended first vaccine for human papillomavirus and nearly two-thirds had not received the additional doses required for series completion.
  • And while screening for tobacco use occurred during more than 69 percent of visits to outpatient physician offices by adolescents and young adults during 2004–2010, less than 20 percent of current tobacco users received any help with smoking cessation.

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