Report shows poor children more likely to have dental disease
Thousands of minority and low-income Bay State third-graders spend every day in pain due to poor dental health and one in six suffer from dental disease, according to a new study released Thursday.
The study, commissioned by Delta Dental, found a wide disparity between children's dental health, with minority and low-income children typically many times more likely to experience tooth and gum problems than white or higher-income children.
``We commissioned the study really to make it a call to action,'' said Fay Donohue, president and CEO of the Delta Dental Plan. ``We know this, for the most part, is a preventable disease. You don't have to have kids walking around in pain.''
After studying 6,000 kindergarten, third grade and sixth grade students, though, study author and Catalyst Institute director of analytics Alex White said it's clear thousands of children, particularly black, Hispanic and low-income children are doing just that.
``The key finding is these dental disparities are still a significant issue,'' he said. ``Nearly a third of kindergarten kids have evidence of a cavity. Forty-one percent of third grade kids show some evidence of decay and about 34 percent of sixth-graders.''
Based on state-wide enrollment figures, he said, that means about 19,000 kindergarteners, 29,000 third-graders and 25,000 sixth-graders have some
form of dental problems.
Among minority populations, though, the disparity is even wider.
While 14 percent of white third-graders show signs their dental problems weren't being treated, 25 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of black children were going without treatment, the study found.
The study also found a similar disparity among children who experience pain in their teeth or mouth, with twice as many black or Hispanic children saying they felt pain as whites.
Donohue believes at least part of the answer lies in prodding the state and other officials to begin drafting a statewide plan to improve oral health, as several other states have done.
``This is an issue for which there is no one, single answer,'' she said. ``We found the results of this study surprising - it was a wake up call we need to do better.
``There are a lot of different solutions, but they're best when they come from the community. It's one of those things where it does take a lot of different points of pressure.''
The idea of a statewide plan for dental health is something the Massachusetts Dental Society said it has been waiting for.
``We've read those other state reports, and we've kind of said, `Where's our state report?'°'' said Karen Rafeld, the society's assistant executive director and senior policy adviser. ``If (this study) will get the state Department of Public Health on the ball, that will be great.''
Rafeld also believes the study will give the state a good baseline measurement, which subsequent studies can use for comparison's sake.
``So in the next two, three, five, 10 years, we can really mark it against the progress we hope to make,'' she said.
``It's huge,'' MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation president Martin Cohen said of the study. ``One of the first groups I met with here was a group of teachers and school nurses, and they said kids with toothaches was the number one health issue'' they dealt with.
The foundation has tried to tackle the problem of disparities in dental care through programs that allow low-income students to have protective sealants and fluoridated varnish put on their teeth, a grant to expand dental care at the Framingham Health Center and a grant designed to encourage Natick dentists to begin accepting patients covered by MassHealth, but those programs only address part of the problem.
``Someone once said, `Everything starts with the mouth,' '' Cohen said. ``It's related to diet, and cancers. It's the first thing people see.''
Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at email@example.com.
MetroWest Daily News