Early childhood cavities: It's a story worth telling
Journalists and others can produce powerful stories about early childhood tooth decay that engage and educate readers. To learn more, contact Matt Jacob of the Children’s Dental Health Project at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-417-3600.
Below are some examples of the stories through which this issue has been explored by health reporters. (Oral health advocates: These five tips can help you encourage reporters in your state to write about early childhood tooth decay.)
Who knew? This Washington Post headline speaks for itself: “You’ll never guess the most common chronic disease of childhood.” The answer: tooth decay. Yet the Children Dental Health Project’s 2015 public opinion survey shows that only 7% of U.S. adults are aware of this fact.
Early cavities can be a lifetime of trouble. Many young children have had cavities. The New York Times reported on national data revealing that nearly one in four kids ages 2-5 has experienced tooth decay. Because the early disease process is often unchecked, by the late teens, more than 2/3 of young people have had cavities. USA Today published a Q&A with a dental official who explained how untreated tooth decay can cause serious and even life-threatening infections.
The cost of cavities. Preventing tooth decay can save money for families and state budgets. That’s because young children with rampant cavities are generally treated in operating rooms, and many of these kids are covered by state Medicaid programs. As Colorado Public Radio reported, treating early childhood cavities at a children’s hospital in Denver costs about $40 million a year. A study in New York State revealed that the cost of treating preschoolers for tooth decay in hospitals or similar facilities reached $31 million.
Oral health is not just for dentists. Pediatricians and others outside of the dental field can play key roles in ending cavities among children. An ABC affiliate in Tennessee reported on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent recommendation that pediatricians apply fluoride varnish to children’s teeth 2-4 times annually, starting at 6 months (once teeth appear) and continuing through age 5. Wisconsin Public Radio aired a story about how dentists and pediatricians are teaming up to ensure that more children get an oral health assessment and fluoride treatment by age 1. (Fluoride varnish is painted onto teeth, dries quickly and makes the enamel more resistant to decay.) In New York City, Columbia University’s “My Smile Buddy” project relies on community health workers to engage and educate parents on how they can reduce their children’s risk of tooth decay.
One body, many health records. Changing the overall system of care and coordination is crucial. Health Affairs shared a blog post examining the need to integrate electronic health records for dental and medical care, so families with high-risk children receive the services and education they need.
Oral Hygiene 2.0. Brushing with fluoride toothpaste is a critical form of cavity prevention for young children. The New York Times shared the updated recommendations for how much toothpaste should be used for preschool-age kids. The Journal of the American Dental Association published a study in New York State projecting how various strategies—including a program to encourage regular tooth-brushing—would reduce cavities among Medicaid-enrolled preschoolers and how each strategy would reduce Medicaid costs.
Treatment innovations. Cavities are caused by a disease called “caries.” The Baltimore Sun explored the pros and cons of dentists using silver diamine fluoride to keep the early signs of decay from advancing to a cavity.
Moms matter. Dental journals and websites have shared research showing that a pregnant women’s oral health helps to predict her newborn child’s risk of tooth decay. Unfortunately, many pregnant women are not getting the dental care they need. Over the past year, editors and reporters have been raising awareness that women's oral health matters, especially during pregnancy. This editorial urged legislators in Washington State to improve women's access to dental care during pregnancy. And an Illinois newspaper story encouraged women to seek dental services during pregnancy.
Coverage counts. Federal officials should do more to reveal how many children have gained dental coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This can help policymakers consider ways to address gaps in coverage. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides medical and dental coverage for 8 million kids, and a 2015 analysis shows that CHIP is more affordable for families than the dental coverage accessible through the ACA state marketplaces. As Governing magazine explains, Congress extended federal funding for CHIP but for a shorter period of time than advocates had sought. In a 2015 editorial, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette praised CHIP for significantly reducing the number of uninsured kids in Pennsylvania.
Reconnecting the mouth with the body. DrBicuspid.com reported that the University of California-San Francisco medical school has begun teaching first-year students how to conduct an oral health assessment and apply fluoride varnish to children's teeth.
Tooth decay: it's a global concern. Dental caries is a problem that afflicts children on every continent. The Alliance for a Cavity-Free Future is disseminating information and coordinating efforts around the world.