Children are not healthy if their mouths aren’t healthy. Oral health problems that begin in childhood often linger into adulthood, causing more serious health problems and preventable diseases in the future.
That’s why it’s important to look at the whole picture painted by the 2010 Smile Survey, which was released this week by the Washington State Department of Health. Although the survey finds encouraging signs of improving childhood oral health, not all kids are benefitting.
A window into the overall health of children, the oral health Smile Survey is a statewide randomized sample of preschool and elementary school children. The survey was conducted by dentists and dental hygienists at 53 elementary schools and 48 Head Start/ECEAP sites throughout Washington, and is the fourth assessment of how healthy children’s mouths are in our state.
The good news the survey brings is that the overall rate of tooth decay in preschoolers and elementary-age children in our state has dropped from 46 percent to 40 percent since 2005. Fifty-one percent of 3rd graders have dental sealants, an effective procedure to prevent tooth decay at an early age. And in the last five years, the disparity in access to sealant care has been reduced for low-income kids and children of color.
But disparity remains. According to the survey, 60 percent of low-income children and 57 percent of kids of color in kindergarten and 3rd grade have tooth decay. That’s a troubling disparity when the statewide average for tooth decay is 49 percent.
Will a child’s future entail chronic pain, preventable disease, and unnecessary emergency room visits for conditions that could have been prevented? Will all kids in our state – regardless of their race, ethnicity or family income — ever get regular access to dental cleanings, sealants and check-ups?
We hope policymakers see the new Smile Survey as a call to greater investments in proven and effective measures that employ innovation to meet the needs of our children.
Oral health disease is almost 100 percent preventable — a problem that Washington can solve.