RALEIGH — The pain and social stigma of decaying teeth can be largely eliminated through early use of sealant treatments, but North Carolina children from low-income families may be less likely to receive preventative dental care than their peers across the nation.
A new study puts North Carolina in the bottom five of states for school-based dental sealant treatment programs, considered the most effective way to give at-risk children a shot at growing up with healthy teeth.
Oral health problems not only can be painful but are linked to lower academic scores and additional physical problems, says Jane Koppelman, senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts Dental Campaign, which conducted the study.
Sealants are a quick, one-time procedure costing about a third of the cost of filling a molar, the most cavity-prone teeth.
Dental sealants are a type of liquefied plastic that is painted over the uneven chewing surfaces of back teeth to prevent food particles from being trapped and bacteria from forming. A Surgeon Generals report on oral health says sealants can reduce decay by 70 percent.
The Pew study shows that 34 percent of children from average-to higher-income households across the nation have had sealant treatments. The number drops to 26 percent in lower-income families. About 27 percent of black children are treated, compared to 36 percent of white children.
A screening of North Carolina fifth graders by the state health department during the 2009-10 school year found 44 percent had sealants on one or more teeth, said Rebecca King, who oversees the Oral Health section at the state Department of Health and Human Services .
We dont have the resources to provide sealants to all these kids, but we have been educating parents since the mid-1980s and trying to encourage them to take children to their own dentists to get them, King said.
Still, North Carolina earned a grade of F in the Pew study because only a quarter of its high-risk schools have on-site programs. Nearly half of all states earned either a D or an F based on the Pew surveys criteria.
School-based programs are preferred because they are the most effective means of reaching under-served families, said Gary Rozier, a professor of health policy at UNCs Gillings School of Global Public Health who led a Centers for Disease Control work group on dental sealants.
These programs provide ready access to children whose families cant afford regular dental care, who are unable to locate a dentist in their community, or who simply dont value dental services, Rozier said.
King said North Carolina has a large percentage of schools whose students fall into the high-risk category, and she agreed that preventative dental health services need to be expanded for low-income children in the state. The state provides screenings and some limited dental care to fifth-grade students each year.
During the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year with data available, North Carolina screened more than 80,000 fifth-graders for dental problems. Some were referred for follow-up care to outside agencies, while 11,200 were provided direct care including 5,100 sealant applications.
The states oral health program has a budget of $5.3 million after suffering $1.4 million in cuts since 2009. Three-quarters of the funding comes through state sources, and the remaining 35 percent is from Medicaid.
Our legislative mandate is to focus on children, and our emphasis is on getting to them early, before they develop extensive problems, King said.
Spin-off benefits of decay prevention include better nutrition and less absenteeism for children and cost savings for parents and public funding agencies that cover dental treatments, such as Medicaid, Rozier said.
A typical sealant application costs about $45, approximately a third of the cost of a filling, according to dentist Amanda Allen, who was busy last week checking and sealing teeth on youngsters at the Wake Health Services Dental Center.
The dental center uses a combination of funding sources to provide services to patients on Medicaid, those who have private insurance, and those who are uninsured.
Marquesa Barden, 32, a medical technologist whose dental insurance coverage does not extend to other family members, said she takes her three children to the Wake dental center for regular check ups.
The dentist brought up the need for the sealants, and I thought it was a good idea, Barden said. I dont want my kids to get toothaches. I want them to be able to smile.
Allen said parent education is a big factor in ensuring children get the dental care they need. Some families shy away from dental care due to fear or concerns about cost.
If we can protect their teeth with sealants, we can prevent cavities, and they can learn better and eat better, Allen said. And it helps them feel good about themselves.