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Tip Sheets

What stories can you cover for National Children’s Dental Health Month?

Mary Otto
Mary Otto


By Mary Otto

It started small, as a single day in Cleveland.

Feb. 3, 1941, was dedicated to spotlighting the dental needs of children. It turned out there was lots more to say and do.

Over the years, February has evolved into National Children’s Dental Health Month.

Maybe a story related to the oral health of children is unfolding in your community. And February is a good time to tell it.

To help you get started on your reporting, here is a tip sheet that draws upon insights and information exchanged during a Jan 23 AHCJ webinar: Looking Ahead, A Reporter’s Guide to Children’s Dental Health Month.

At events throughout the country this month, oral health professionals, teachers and volunteers will be providing dental care and education to kids.

The American Dental Association and state and local dental societies are holding 1,360 Give Kids a Smile events in coming weeks with a kickoff clinic for hundreds of children planned for Feb. 6 at A.T. Still University School of Dentistry & Oral Health in Mesa.

At the same time, The American Education Association is urging schools to use science and reading classes to promote oral health awareness. Research has found that children with poor oral health are more than three times as likely as their peers to miss school because of dental pain.

Meanwhile, oral health advocates will use the month to talk about the ways they believe the nation’s oral health system needs to expand to serve more children. In spite of progress in areas such as community water fluoridation in recent decades, they are quick to point out that tooth decay is the still the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States.

The burden falls particularly heavily upon poor children, who are more likely to develop tooth decay and less likely to receive care.

The shortage of care impacts millions.

Fewer than half of young Americans from low-income families got to the dentist in one recent year, according to national statistics. Only 14 percent received preventive care in the form of dental sealants or topical fluoride, observed webcast presenter Shelly Gehshan, director of children's dental policy at The Pew Charitable Trusts, citing a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Expanding school-based dental sealant programs is one good way to address the need, research shows.

Dental sealants are clear plastic coatings that are applied to the chewing (occlusal) surfaces of molars have been found to be particularly effective at preventing decay.

One major study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found a median decrease of 60 percent in decay in the sealed teeth of children and teens.

Still, challenges remain in establishing, sustaining and financing these school based programs.

In a 2013 report “Falling Short: Most States Lag on Dental Sealants” Pew graded states on their efforts to establish school based sealant programs. The philanthropy gave 40 percent of states a grade of D or F, citing a lack of programs and providers.

In a 2014 report, “Dental Sealants: Proven to Prevent Tooth Decay,” the nonprofit Children’s Dental Health Project also looked at issues impacting the delivery of state and local school-based sealant programs.

Still, in spite of the barriers, there are places where public health efforts are beating the odds, Gehshan stressed in the webcast.

One example is North Carolina’s Into the Mouths of Babes program, which has improved oral health among children who might not otherwise get treatments by training physicians to apply fluoride varnish.

The concentrated topical fluoride, which is placed upon young children’s teeth with a small brush, has been shown effective in helping prevent decay.

This paper, in the journal Pediatrics, takes a detailed look at the Into the Mouths of Babes program.

The use of physicians to get preventive dental care to underserved children is being explored in other communities facing a shortage of dentists.

An estimated 49 million Americans live in 4,230 federally designated Dental Health Provider Shortage Areas, also known as “dental deserts.” Follow this link to find out if your community is among them.

As Gehshan noted, efforts are also under way in some states to develop alternative dental provider models to expand care to these under served areas.

Technically-trained dental therapists are at work in Alaska’s tribal areas. A variation of the model is also being used in Minnesota. Pew took a look at the work of such mid-level providers in a 2014 report.

The American Dental Association remains strongly opposed to dental therapists, maintaining that only dentists have the training to perform what are termed “irreversible surgical procedures” such as drilling and filling teeth. Yet the Maine Board of Dental Examiners is now in the process of finalizing regulations that would allow dental hygiene therapists to go to work in that state, according to Gehshan, and other states, including New Mexico, are now exploring the model.

What is going on in your state or community to get dental care to children who need it? Is there a story for you to tell during National Children’s Dental Health Month?