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Health writer tells how she got the story on experimental dental treatment Date: 12/16/15

By Mary Otto

Dentists around the world have been using silver diamine fluoride (SDF) for years to treat tooth decay.

In the fight against decay-causing bacteria, some researchers call the agent a "silver-fluoride bullet."

They point to evidence suggesting that SDF is not only effective in halting the decay process but in preventing the development of new caries. The material is cheap and can be easily painted onto the affected tooth.

It has been found to help control tooth pain as well. Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the agent for the treatment of tooth sensitivity in adults.

Clinical trials are getting underway at the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa that might eventually pave the way for an FDA application for the treatment of tooth decay in this country, Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea McDaniels told readers in a November story we recently wrote about.

The central focus of the piece was a local mother's search for help for her child.

The mother, Heather Powell, was worried about a dentist’s plan to put her 4-year-old son, Eli, under general anesthesia to place eight crowns on his teeth, McDaniels wrote.

In an Internet search for an alternative to drilling and filling the boy's teeth, Powell learned about SDF. She discovered that a few U.S. dentists have been using it off-label to "freeze" cavities.

"Some dentists and patients are turned off because the process turns the spot on the tooth where it is applied permanently black," McDaniels wrote. Other experts stressed that more needs to be known about SDF.

But Powell embraced the option. She convinced her dentist to try it. The treatment, so far, seems to be working for Eli. "Powell wants more parents and dentists to know about the treatment," McDaniels wrote.

"We avoided tons of trauma, pain and discomfort," the mother said.

In this Q&A, McDaniels tells us more about her work on the story, and offers some insights into how she manages her busy health and medical beat at the Sun.

 


Andrea McDaniels

Q: What got you started on this story about Heather and Eli Powell and silver diamine fluoride?

A: Heather sent an e-mail describing how she came to get her son the treatment. I had never heard of silver diamine fluoride to treat cavities and became intrigued.

Q: Describe how your reporting unfolded.

A: I spoke with Heather, who told me how dentists weren't using the treatment even though it had been approved by the FDA. I started by asking the FDA if this is true and found right away that silver diamine fluoride was not approved for cavity treatment. I then sought to find out why, and if it was indeed safe.

Q: In your reporting, did you learn anything that surprised you?

A: I had no idea there was this small movement to get silver diamine fluoride approved for use to treat cavities, but that it has been difficult because the process is expensive and no big drug companies are on board.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of this piece?

A: Because the drug is new in America, figuring out what research was available took a little time. I also had to take care to write about the treatment, while making clear there still needs to be more research on its safety and effectiveness. I didn't want parents running out to get the treatment without knowing that, or appear as if I was endorsing its use.

Q: You cover a wide range of health and medical topics, everything from health exchanges to hospital affairs, research and consumer news. What area of your beat do you enjoy most?

A: I most enjoy writing about urban health issues and how social issues such as poverty and violence contribute to bad health outcomes.