For Your Health
By Charles LaTourette
According to the Oregon Department of Human Services and national studies, Oregon children have among the highest rates of dental decay in the nation, and low-income and minority children are disproportionately affected by a disease that is nearly 100 percent preventable.
Thousands of children lack access to even basic dental care because of poverty, geographic and cultural barriers, and Portland is now the largest city in the nation without community water fluoridation – a safe and proven way of reducing dental decay.
Why is this happening in Oregon? Many people, including physicians, educators, parents and policy makers continue to think of dental disease as a cosmetic issue. A growing body of evidence suggests that healthy teeth and gums are important to overall health. Numerous studies associate poor oral health with other diseases like heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and dental infections have even led to death.
The good news is that dental disease can be nearly eliminated with good oral hygiene and regular visits to a dental professional. This is a disease we can actually do something about if we have the collective will to take action.
The first step: Help our leaders understand that dental disease deserves greater attention and support. Every dollar invested in preventive dental care, saves thousands of dollars of unnecessary treatment, and ultimately millions of dollars to our health care system.
Secondly: Provide oral health education and hygiene kits (toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss) to children on a regular basis in our schools, especially in preschool and primary grades, and help educate parents about the need for good oral health.
Thirdly, implement community water fluoridation so that all children have access to this proven way to reduce tooth decay.
For some bizarre reason, fluoridation has become the third-rail in Oregon politics. The argument against it goes something like this, “We don’t want anything added to our water, and besides you can get fluoride tablets at your dentist’s office.” That’s true, if you have money, dental insurance, a dentist you visit regularly and a parent who understand the importance of good oral hygiene.
The real question around community water fluoridation isn’t a scientific one, since it has proven itself safe and effective for over 70 years in over 75 percent of the country. The real question is a social justice one: How can you justify denying a safe and cost effective treatment that helps everyone regardless of their race, ethnicity and ability to pay? The answer is simple: You can’t.
For a state that touts its reputation for sustainability and spends millions on it annually, we have done a very poor job of sustaining the health of our children.
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. It is a good time to remember the importance of good oral hygiene, and to reflect on this question: Why aren’t we doing more to eliminate a disease that is nearly 100 percent preventable and causes thousands of our most vulnerable children to suffer needlessly?
Charles LaTourette is executive director of the Dental Foundation of Oregon.