By Shelley Hoss
Published in the Orange County Register on March 25, 2013
Poor oral health care for children can result in chronic problems throughout life, and it is largely preventable.
If your child had a broken bone, would you allow her to suffer with excruciating pain and let the bone heal badly, causing her lifelong challenges as a result? What if she had a puncture wound on her hand that, left untreated, could cause a severe and potentially life-threatening infection? Wouldn’t you seek medical help immediately? And what if all of these circumstances were almost entirely preventable?
These scenarios mirror the No. 1 chronic disease affecting young children across the nation, and the stakes are even higher for children living in poverty.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org):
• Early-childhood cavities are the No. 1 chronic disease affecting young children
• Early-childhood cavities are five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever
• Tooth pain keeps many children home from school or distracted from learning
“One in three children sits in school with untreated disease,” says Liz Bear, CEO of Healthy Smiles for Kids of Orange County. “With untreated oral problems, children can not only experience debilitating pain but even struggle to eat and sleep adequately, which further affects their growth and concentration in school.”
But because tooth decay is less visible than many other health issues affecting children, it can go unnoticed by parents or may be made a lower priority when evaluating healthcare needs.
The National Oral Health Surveillance Survey identified that a staggering 71 percent of children in California have experienced decay by the third grade. Compounding this issue, the California Smile Survey found that children who live under the poverty line are twice as likely to have untreated decay as their more affluent peers.
“People with health insurance tend to seek out routine medical care, take preventive measures and experience better overall health as a result,” says Bear. “But for many Orange County residents, visiting a doctor is something they just can’t afford—and dental care is an even more remote possibility.
A report released by the Orange County Community Foundation in November 2012 found that:
One in three Orange County residents is uninsured or underinsured. These numbers include children and the elderly—two particularly vulnerable populations in need of regular medical care
An additional 30 percent of adults and 25 percent of children in Orange County lack coverage for dental and vision care, decreasing the incidence of regular check-ups and preventive screenings. Medi-Cal and Healthy Families assist many underinsured families, but more than 400,000 uninsured county residents do not qualify for either program.
But there is good news on the horizon. Significant progress is being made by local nonprofits like Healthy Smiles for Kids Orange County, which was established 10 years ago with the support of the Children and Families Commission. At that time, there was no place for children of low-income families with little or no insurance to get dental care in Orange County.
Healthy Smile’s mission focuses on advocacy, treatment and prevention, and it serves as the primary dental care provider for low-income, medically fragile and special needs children referred by Orange County’s 23 community clinics One of its greatest successes is the 7,000-square-foot Garden Grove “Smile Center,” which provides almost 9,000 treatment visits for low-income children annually.
“We are making tremendous progress and there are more options available to families of all incomes to ensure their children get the preventative care and treatment they need,” says Bear. “But we can’t do it alone. We need parents to partner with us to understand the urgency and value of good oral health and that dental issues when they are very young can affect their children for life.”
To learn more about issues like these and how you can help, visit ConnectOC.org.
Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at Shelley.Hoss@oc-cf.org.