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Biting down on cavities

‘Epidemic’ of dental decay in kids addressed

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Utah is tackling the "silent epidemic" of dental decay head on by becoming aware of children's oral health and establishing new programs to improve it.

That was the message Friday from the Utah Department of Health and KIDS COUNT.

One year after the U.S. Surgeon General's report on oral health, state officials addressed the results of a Utah survey and highlighted dental plans and enhancements they hope will improve children's oral health.

Based on the first-ever Utah survey of more than 1,500 schoolchildren, 58 percent of Utah kids between ages 6 and 8 have experienced dental decay and 22 percent have untreated dental decay. Half of 8-year-old Utah children have dental sealants. The survey also found that 21 percent of parents did not have insurance for their children's dental care.

"There is not a day that goes by in clinic that I don't see a child in need," said Karen Buchi, associate professor at the University of Utah.

A few weeks ago Buchi visited with a 4-year-old whose teeth were so decayed that he couldn't chew very well. He needed surgical dental intervention and will now have stainless steel caps until his secondary teeth grow in.

"It's a totally preventable disease," she said.

It's an issue many people are not aware of, though, said Dr. Steven Steed, Department of Health state dental director. The data from the survey are still being analyzed, he said, but the preliminary results reinforce the essential nature of oral health. Nationwide, he said 51 million hours are lost each year in school time to dental problems.

The survey was the result of the first Utah Oral Health Summit, held last October. Meetings focused on prevention and education, policy and funding and access, Steed said.

As of July 1, the department's Children's Health Insurance Program expanded its coverage to include stainless steel crowns and surgical extractions. The coverage also includes things like cleaning, exams and fillings. CHIP serves 24,000 Utah children.

For those kids who don't qualify for CHIP or Medicaid services, though, Blue Cross Blue Shield's Caring Foundation for Children will provide free oral health care for children with medical but not dental insurance, said Adrienne Swain, Caring Foundation for Children coordinator.

Right now the program is serving 136 children from Ogden to Provo at seven locations, but it has plans to expand to serve 750 by next year.

Nationwide, decay is five times more common than childhood asthma. It causes problems with concentration, nutrition and sleeping, said Terry Haven, KIDS COUNT coordinator for Utah Children.

Haven said parents need to encourage awareness of the problem by asking for school dental screenings and pushing for legislative remedies. The "Watch Your Mouth" van, a 54-foot-long unit that can accommodate three dentists and their staffs, is doing just that, she said.

The van was in Utah Friday and left to travel around rural Santa Clara County, Calif.

E-mail: lwhite@desnews.com