Editor’s note: The following story is one in a continuing series examining the oral health needs of young children in Michigan this year.
By Teri Banas
CLARE, MI – While traveling Clare and Gladwin counties to visit the homes of children and families enrolled in the state’s Early On program, coordinator Heather DuBois made a shocking discovery: Time after time she found young children with rotted teeth – baby teeth, no less.
“I saw first-hand the lack of understanding and realization for the need to take care of children’s mouths long before they get teeth,” said DuBois. “It’s something I was always bringing up and talking about.”
Fortunately, as director of the Great Start Collaborative of Clare-Gladwin, DuBois has been able to do something about tooth decay in young children, also known as early childhood caries. As the Collaborative’s governing council began looking into health outcomes of children from birth to age 5 in their region, members agreed the poor dental conditions of their young children warranted action.
The Collaborative decided to build a three-year strategic plan to address the problem after seeing Clare County rank dead last in 2011 for health outcomes in the annual county-by-county Kids Count report. Among a multitude of health worries, oral health problems emerged near the top.
The next step required collecting data. In February 2012, the Collaborative invited the Michigan Oral Health Coalition to make a presentation. That led to a study of the dental health of incoming kindergarteners in the Clare Public Schools and the Harrison Community Schools during the kindergarten round-up of spring 2012.
The news, though bad, validated the need for a community-wide campaign to build awareness and education around early dental care. In a report released a month ago, Coalition Executive Director Karlene Ketola said nearly 50 percent of the children screened in that kindergarten round-up had some level of tooth decay. The national average is 33 percent. The study also found that one in 20 children was referred to a Clare County dentist for immediate treatment due to noticeable decay with possible pain and swelling.
“Most parents are surprised that the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Pediatric Dentists recommend the first dental visit take place at age one,” Ketola said. “This report underlies the critical importance of reaching out to parents, the dental and medical communities, educators and caregivers to help give our youngest Michiganders the healthiest start in life.”
DuBois said she wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the kindergarten round-up study, nor does she think dental problems in infants and toddlers are restricted to her northern Michigan communities. [SN1] “It’s not just in our area, it’s everywhere,” DuBois said. “There’s just a general lack of understanding of oral health as it related to overall well-being and health.”
According to the Michigan Oral Health Coalition, dental decay in baby teeth is often overlooked but can have serious consequences as children grow. Besides affecting the development of permanent teeth and gum health, poor dental health among children affects nutrition, speech development, and hurts children’s self-esteem and social development.
It also can impact academic success due to missed school days, difficulties concentrating, and misbehavior as the result of pain from cavities, abscesses, and toothaches. What’s more, poor dental health affects overall health, and can even cause death when infections that start in the mouth spread unabated.
The Early Childhood Investment Corporation is making a yearlong effort to raise awareness among parents, families and policy makers about poor oral health in Michigan’s youngest citizens. In its late 2012 report, “Oral Health Care for Young Children 0-5 Years: From Research to Recommendations,” researchers for the University of Michigan found that two out of three parents of young children are waiting too long to prevent oral health problems in their infants and toddlers.
Perhaps most surprising, the study found the awareness gap is prevalent even among dentists, many of whom still advise parents to seek preventive care for their children starting at age 3 – two years later than the recommended start time by national professional groups. DuBois said her Collaborative heard the same misinformation spread by general dentists in her area. There are no pediatric-trained dentists in the Clare-Gladwin area, she added. Across Michigan, there are fewer than 100 pediatric dentists.
With the three-year strategic plan in place, the Collaborative is looking ahead and working hard to promote an education campaign for parents, schoolteachers and professionals working in the field of early childhood, DuBois said. It has adopted a curriculum recommended by Ketola that is steeped in preventive care, in part because there are so few dentists in the region. The curriculum is called “A Brighter Beginning” and was created by Delta Dental of Michigan. The Collaborative will focus on oral health at informational booths at community health fairs this month and again in August.
“Our goal is outreach to families and that 80 percent of our early childhood community programs will use our oral health initiative over the next three years,” DuBois said.
To view the complete report, ”Kindergarten Round-Up Oral Health Assessment for Clare Public Schools and Harrison Community Schools,” visit www.mohc.org.
To learn more about the Investment Corporation’s case for early dental care, click here.
The Early Childhood Investment Corporation is an independent, publicly owned nonprofit helping Michigan rebuild its economy by delivering better education, health and economic outcomes through effective early childhood development.