Oral health important for children, families; help available in Whatcom County

It seems like almost every week there is new information on the importance of oral health and the significant percentage of people still experiencing dental disease even though it is also almost entirely preventable.

Recent examples include a new report from the Centers for Disease Control on the nationwide prevalence of cavities among children and adolescents, and a column in The Bellingham Herald on problems with adult access to dental care here in Washington.

Whatcom County has made significant progress in improving children’s access to dental care, but more needs to be done.

Dental care is important for children because dental disease is the most common childhood disease in the United States, affecting five times as many children as asthma. Cavities and dental disease can interfere with a child’s nutrition, overall health and ability to learn. Gum disease has also been linked to serious health issues including heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Early and regular dental care along with a healthy diet and good oral health habits at home can help prevent or reduce the likelihood and severity not only of dental disease but also many other health issues.

Whatcom County’s efforts to improve dental care access for children includes the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program, known as ABCD, that links young low-income children to dental care and strives to ensure that all communities have enough dentists to see children with Medicaid. It’s thanks to ABCD that over 50 percent of low-income kids under age six in this state see a dentist each year.

In Whatcom County, ABCD has more than doubled the number of children ages 0-5 with Medicaid who see a dentist each year since its inception in 2001. But, the utilization rate of 46.8 percent in Whatcom County in 2014 was still below the statewide average.

This is really unfortunate because Medicaid (also known as Apple Health for Kids) covers children’s dental care, dentists are available and so many problems can be prevented or easily fixed if they are detected early.

The good news is, Whatcom dentists saw over 4,300 kids ages 0-5 with Medicaid in 2014. These dentists’ commitment to oral health ensures that Whatcom kids have access to a full array of preventive and restorative dental care.

But challenges remain: 42 percent of Whatcom County children already had decay, treated or untreated, when they entered kindergarten, higher than the statewide average of 39 percent, according to the most recent statewide survey. By 3rd grade, 61 percent of Whatcom children had decay experience.

Lack of regular dental care also impacts children with private dental benefits. Recent data indicate that Washington children with commercial dental insurance actually go to the dentist less than their counterparts with Medicaid.

So, while children’s access to dental care and oral health is improving, we still have a long way to go.

Parents can help improve their kids’ oral health in many ways, beginning very early. Remember, “first teeth, first birthday, first dental visit!” Children should have their first dental appointment when they turn one, or when their first teeth appear. Some physicians also have been trained to look in the mouth during well-child checkups and refer children to a dentist for follow-up care.

Also, cavities are caused by bacteria that get passed between people in close contact, like kids and their parents. Brushing, flossing and regular dental cleanings help control these bacteria. Kids should get dental check-ups twice a year to help keep their teeth healthy and find any problems before they get serious. Parents need to be good role models and make good oral health a priority for the whole family.

Parents needing help finding a dentist for their child should call the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement at 360-788-6594. The alliance leads the Whatcom ABCD program, linking Apple Health for Kids participants, 0-5 years, with a participating local dentist.

Having more dentists participating in ABCD can also help expand outreach. Dentists interested in becoming an ABCD provider should call Lara Welker at the alliance, 360-788- 6588.