The boy nods sagely as Kathy Baebler describes what happens to a tooth that has a cavity. A first-grader at Parkview Elementary School, he's already had a few cavities, as have many of his classmates.
He's lucky, though. His dental problems have been addressed, putting him ahead of many children throughout the city.
Tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease, five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. Millions of school hours are lost each year to dental-related diseases. And baby teeth that are poorly cared for often lead to problem adult teeth.
Monday morning, Baebler, of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department dental program, showed the Parkview children the proper way to brush their teeth. Then they were given two sets each of toothbrushes and toothpaste. One they will take home, the other stays at school. Brushing is about to become part of the curriculum for the school's preschoolers through third-graders, and they'll hit the bristles a couple of times a day in their classrooms, developing habits the program sponsors hope will become both automatic and lifelong.
The state's first-ever school-based dental hygiene program, it started as a collaboration between Intermountain Health Care and the Salt Lake Community Action Program. IHC employees in the corporate headquarters are the business partners for the elementary school, and each year they pick a health goal where they can achieve measurable improvements, said Cynthia Boshard, director of Community Health Partnerships for IHC.
IHC employees teamed up with SLCAP to get toothbrushes and toothpaste for the kids, then collaborated with the health department and the Salt Lake Community College Oral Health Program to put together assemblies to teach the youngsters to use them.
Dental screenings are in the works for the younger children, and "Sealant Saturdays" will be scheduled for the older ones. Follow-up appointments will be made and the program's success tracked.
Prevention and education are immensely important, said Duane Dowden of SLCAP. Each year, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Medicaid and low-income parents squeeze their budgets to pay for dental crises. Teaching children to care for their teeth to begin with would have huge impacts on the programs. Last year, the state spent about $3 million on tooth removal for youngsters, Dowden said.
It's not a subject new to west-side neighborhoods, though it's the first program in a public school, Dowden said. Four preschools and a day-care center have their own dental programs going.
Every few months, the children will be given new toothbrushes as part of the program, as well as more toothpaste, Boshard said.
They hope other businesses will decide to take a similar dental program into their partner schools, Boshard said. And she and Dowden are happy to share the "how we did it affordably" with such would-be sponsors.