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Prioritize dental health

Student Melia Harris helps Isaac Tolentino with the proper way to brush his teeth. Twenty percent of children go without dental care.
Student Melia Harris helps Isaac Tolentino with the proper way to brush his teeth. Twenty percent of children go without dental care.
Deseret News archives

One in five children in America goes without dental care each year, according to a new national study released by the Pew Center on the States.

The study also found that two-thirds of the 50 states have ineffective policies to ensure proper access to care. Utah received a "D" grade for its policies for providing dental health care to low-income families, meaning the Beehive State met three of eight policy benchmarks used by researchers such as school-based dental sealant programs, fluoridated public water supplies and Medicaid payments.

Other states that received "D" grades were Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming received "F's" for their efforts.

The release of the study, which coincides with National Children's Dental Health Month, sheds light on the need for improved dental care for needy children.

Aside from the misery of tooth decay and possible infection, neglecting children's dental care can have lifetime consequences, according to the report.

For example, 42 percent of incoming Army recruits had at least one dental condition that needed to be treated before they could be deployed, according to a 2000 study of the armed forces. More than 15 percent of recruits had four or more teeth in need of urgent repair.

In recent years, child advocates have termed tooth decay among Utah children as an "epidemic." The Utah School Nurse Association has identified dental disease as the biggest health problem among elementary school-age children.

Beyond the personal costs, poor dental care among children is costly to society. The Pew study estimates that annual spending for dental care in the United States will increase 58 percent between 2009 and 2018. One-third of the money spent goes to services for children.

One can argue about methodology of the survey, but the issue deserves attention. Yes, dental care is largely a parental responsibility — good dental hygiene, regular check-ups, taking steps to prevent baby bottle tooth decay, wearing mouth protectors and knowing what to do in the event of a dental emergency.

But government policies that preclude children from obtaining needed dental services that not only enhance dental health, but promote physical health and children's ability to learn, need to be reviewed by all states.