22 Jul 2020 Taking a Bite out of the Risks to Children’s Dental Health
One of the earliest health concerns for children is visible with every smile. Teeth. From their earliest days as infants and toddlers, when dental-health treatment and family knowledge surrounding oral hygiene take root, through their crucial elementary school years when potential cavities flow from cans of sugary drinks and other dietary choices, tooth decay is a doorway to health issues that can have impacts into adulthood.
With the goal of taking a healthy bite out of the risk of that happening to children in Charlotte County, the Florida Department of Health in Charlotte County (DOH-Charlotte County) offers its “Look Mom, No Cavities!” program, a public elementary school-based initiative that provides dental screenings, the preventive applications of dental sealants and topical fluoride, as well as oral health education and referrals to dental practices.
“In addition to the schools, we also go into Early Headstart and Headstart programs as well as Pre-K programs,” says Lauren Schmidt, DOH-Charlotte County’s health education program consultant.
Ms. Schmidt says three converging factors make the need for no-fee dental services through Charlotte County public schools particularly crucial: the lack of dental professionals, the absence of public-water fluoridation and the number of economically disadvantaged children.
The scarcity of dentists has resulted in the county being federally designated as a shortage area for dental-health professionals. “So, many of the children don’t have what we call a dental home where they can go for services,” she says.
The county’s additional challenge is that there’s no community-wide water fluoridation, which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports is the most efficient way to deliver the cavity-fighting substance to the public, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Finally, Ms. Schmidt points out, “There are 10 elementary schools classified as Title I schools, which designates them as having a high concentration of low-income children. This is why the program is so important.”
Because the children lack access to regular trips to the dentist for check-ups, treatments and dental-health education, they face greater risk from what the CDC terms one of the most chronic childhood diseases in the U.S.
With studies showing that children aged five to 19 from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities as children from higher-income households, the “Look Mom, No Cavities!” program is a health service that keeps on giving: cavities can be prevented for many years with the single application of a dental sealant, a protective coating that blocks out decay-causing germs and bacteria from the teeth’s surfaces.
Citing CDC research, Ms. Schmidt says, “Children who receive sealants have 60% fewer instances of decay for up to five years,” a key point given that children aged six to 11 who lack tooth sealant develop nearly three times more first-molar cavities as children with sealants.
Focused on underscoring the importance of dental health in their daily lives, she says, “We do outreach to the families to engage them as well as their children in good oral health practices.”
Normally, the free program brings the mobile equipment and dental professionals to the schools, providing the greatest access to the families it serves by removing barriers as much as possible, including parents’ work schedules, potential lack of transportation and cost. Kids go home with freshly protected teeth and a goodie bag containing toothbrushes and toothpaste, flossers and an increased awareness about dental health for them and their families.
Ms. Schmidt says the grant support from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation for the program has provided a shot of stability at a time when life in the region has been anything but stable. “They’ve been amazing. With everything that’s been disrupted, to have grant funding in place until the end of 2021 is a true blessing.”
The outbreak and resurgence of COVID-19 amid the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year have made planning especially difficult.
“I don’t see us going back into the schools possibly until January,” Ms. Schmidt says, but we’re looking at a plan B or plan C. One might be having the parents bring the children to the health department where we have everything in place with the proper protective equipment, given the recommended guidelines.”
And that should bring a healthy smile to the children’s faces.
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.
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About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com