Are Whatcom kids’ dental health smile-worthy? Here’s what the latest survey said

Dr. Rebecca Hora, one of Unity Care NW’s dentists, with a patient. Getting children established with regular dental care continues to be a priority for the agency.
Dr. Rebecca Hora, one of Unity Care NW’s dentists, with a patient. Getting children established with regular dental care continues to be a priority for the agency. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Every five years, the Washington State Department of Health conducts the “Smile Survey” to assess the oral health and dental treatment needs of young children throughout the state. The results of the latest Whatcom County Smile Survey, which was conducted by Whatcom County Health Department in partnership with Unity Care NW, were recently released. There’s good news to report and, as always, room for improvement.

What is the Smile Survey?

The Smile Survey was most recently conducted during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. In Whatcom County, over 2,000 preschool children, kindergarteners and second- and third-graders at 15 elementary schools received a brief oral health screening. Dentists and hygienists who participated in the survey statewide screened children for signs of tooth decay and for preventive measures like sealants.

Why is regular dental care important?

Dental caries, otherwise known as “cavities,” is an infectious disease caused by bacteria called Streptococcus Mutans. Tooth decay happens when the bacteria break down tooth enamel (the hard white part) leaving a hole in the tooth. If it is not treated, it will become larger and could eventually get into the nerve, causing a toothache. Untreated tooth decay can also lead to difficulty speaking, chewing and swallowing; sleep problems; missed school days; and higher rates of chronic disease as adults. Identifying problems early, treating decay and preventing cavities are all critical to help kids grow up healthy.

How is Whatcom County doing in treating and preventing childhood tooth decay?

The Smile Survey results show that there has been significant progress in preventing tooth decay through the application of sealants. The number of kindergarteners with sealants, regardless of race or ethnic group, was significantly higher than in previous years. That’s not only good news in terms of prevention but also as a sign of progress in breaking down racial disparities in oral health. More than half of second- and third-graders also had sealants.

Where work remains to be done is in the overall prevalence of dental decay among Whatcom County children. There was little change in rates of cavities and untreated decay. These rates continue to be disproportionately higher among children from low-income households or who are Hispanic or American Indian.

Getting children established with regular dental care continues to be a priority. Only half of Whatcom County’s low-income children under the age of five with Medicaid health insurance receive dental care. A slightly higher rate, approximately 55 percent, of those 20 and under with Medicaid regularly see a dentist. Improving these rates is critical to achieving better oral health outcomes.

The Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program at Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement is one way to connect more children to dental care. The program provides oral health education and connects children under the age of 6 who have Medicaid coverage, also known as “Apple Health,” to dentists who are trained to work with young children.

School-based programs are another approach. Unity Care NW’s Mobile Dental Program offers preventive dental services to students across Whatcom County, including dental exams, sealants, fluoride, and oral health education. Each year, our dentists and hygienists visit all Whatcom County elementary and middle schools, as well as Head Start sites across the county. The focus is on those children who do not see a dentist every six months, providing young children with the opportunity to receive a dental exam, sealants and fluoride applications and oral health instruction. “Unity Care NW’s mobile dental program has been great for preventative oral health care for kids,” says Kelly Molaski, a supervisor with the Whatcom County Health Department.

“Our community could go even further by promoting community water fluoridation,” says Molaski. “That’s the most cost-effective way to deliver fluoride to everyone in community, regardless of their age, income, or dental coverage, and can help reduce oral health disparities like the ones we see in Whatcom County.”

What can you do to help improve the oral health of Whatcom County’s children?

Take your children to a dentist when teeth first emerge or at their first birthday, whichever comes first. A dentist can do an examination to ensure that any problems are detected and treated early.

Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride and sealants. Sealants are protective coatings that are placed on permanent molars. They can prevent 80 percent of cavities in the back teeth, where nine out of 10 cavities occur. Fluoride varnish, a concentrated form of fluoride that is painted on teeth, can lower tooth decay by about one-third. The combination of fluoride varnish applications and daily brushing with a fluoride toothpaste results in less tooth decay.

Read the latest Smile Survey at https://bit.ly/2Nb0EaK.

Dr. Carrie Shane is Unity Care NW’s dental director.