This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
For some odd reason, Americans divide health care into two parts: teeth – and everything else. It’s as if the jaw somehow floats around disconnected from the rest of the body.
Most parents will take their kids to the doctor if they get the flu. But far too many will let cavities fester, sometimes leaving children with persistent pain, ruined teeth and poor school performance.
A recent study by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department isn’t encouraging. Evaluating its own effort to provide decay-preventing sealants or varnishes to Medicaid-eligible schoolchildren, the department found that it hasn’t so far made much of a dent in the overall cavity rate.
The treatment is effective; the problem is getting it to the kids who need it.
The report is both surprising and frustrating. The health department has been heroic in trying to connect children – especially low-income children, who are most at risk – to the dental care they need.
The in-school program has been successful elsewhere and still holds promise here, but some things need changing. The study found that the department’s dental hygienists were able to treat less than a third of eligible children.
One reason was that parents weren’t giving permission (or getting the permission slips in the first place). Another was that some school administrators reportedly didn’t make it particularly easy for the hygienists to get to the students.
Nobody would let gangrene fester or cancer go untreated. But even in 2010, too few people understand the urgency of protecting children’s teeth – including baby teeth when they’re first coming in. A sense of urgency would spur more visits to the dentist, more tooth-brushing, less sugar consumption and far broader water fluoridation – which now benefits only 45 percent of Pierce County’s population.
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