Dental Disease Epidemic in Some U.S. Demographic Groups

Children who are poor, black, Hispanic, disabled, uninsured or HIV-positive are suffering a “silent epidemic” of gum and dental disease, according to dental experts and the U.S. surgeon general.     Data show that, by age 17, over 7 percent of children have had at least one permanent tooth destroyed through decay. A disproportionate number of such children belong to these at-risk demographic groups.

Inner-city dental clinics are best positioned to observe this trend.
   
“Most of the children come and they have anywhere from three to four cavities to an entire mouth of cavities,” said dentist Adriane Graham-Lacy, coordinator of the education program at the Children’s Dental Center, a nonprofit organization that serves children of the working poor in Inglewood, Calif. “It’s a silent epidemic, because most things that go on in the mouth are painless.”

The California Dental Association says that 580,000 of the state’s children under age 19 have little access to dental care. While relatively well-off patients can afford to pay for a dentist, and while those living at or below the poverty line get dental treatment through social service programs, the working poor fall between the cracks.

Due to this, children from such families experience “significant pain, interference with eating, poor self-image, overuse of emergency rooms, and valuable time lost from school.” A recent report concerning California children’s oral health showed that “dental disease was the most prevalent of health issues affecting children and that dental services were not always available for prevention and treatment.”
   
Graham-Lacy said that children of working-poor families usually put off dental care until cavities urgently need to be filled or teeth need to be extracted.
   
“We see children here where the teeth are just holes and they come in with infections,” she said. “Their jaw might be swollen, and there’s pus literally coming out of their mouth.”
   
The problem, she explained, can be solved with education and awareness. The nation, she said, needs to address a situation in which 37 percent of children start school without ever having seen a dentist, and in which dental disease costs kids 51 million school hours a year.

“I think a parent should start taking a child to the dentist when they see the first set of teeth come in and when the child is actually old enough to sit and follow basic instructions,” the dentist said.


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