SEASIDE – Laurie Johnson spends a lot of her time looking inside the mouths of children at schools across Oregon.
Johnson, school oral health programs coordinator with the Oregon Health Authority, looked at dozens of children’s teeth during a four-day screening and sealant program Feb. 23 – 28 at Seaside Heights Elementary School, one of 140 schools to qualify for the state prevention program.
“We have found that children in Oregon have a real problem with cavities and for the first time in some time nationwide there has been an increase in cavities in the past few years,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes the economy and family diets play a key role in the increase in cavities.
“It appears that many people have recognized the problems with sugar, and so sugar intake has declined, but there are so many additives in food that are sugar-based, so what children eat continues to be a big problem.”
Health officials are finding that many children cannot access regular dental care.
“So we do target the populations where the kids are less likely to get the care they need,” she said.
Johnson said prevention programs and fluoridation will help slow that increase.
She said the state has attempted to mandate the use of fluoride in cities with more than 20,000 people.
“But we have found when there is an area that wants to implement fluoridation those opposing the fluoridation come from all over the nation to Oregon to oppose it,” she said. — [see Note below]
“We know that prevention is key. It saves taxpayers many, many dollars in the long run rather than waiting until the child ends up in the emergency room with pain and infection.”
The prevention program was launched five years ago. The schools are chosen based on the number of students enrolled in the federal reduced cost lunch program.
With permission from the children’s parents, Johnson carefully examines each child’s teeth to look for any dental problems.
“Cavities are a hidden disease,” Johnson said. “Very often parents may not know that their child has a dental problem because they don’t complain. But the deteriorating dental condition can affect how they learn, whether they are absent from school and it can create emotional distress as well.”
During evaluations at schools in Oregon, Johnson has discovered badly decayed baby teeth and abscessed teeth.
The sealant process involves placing a plastic protective coating over the child’s teeth surfaces to prevent such decay.
For those children needing immediate and more extensive attention, letters are sent by the Authority to parents and information is given to the school nurse. The nurse seeks out local dental help for the children who need immediate attention.
“It still surprises me to see the condition that some children’s teeth are in,” Johnson said. “I was shocked when I first joined this program. That’s why I am doing this.”
Johnson’s assistant, Shirlee Nash, hopes the in-schools prevention program will make more parents aware of their children’s dental needs.
“The kids eat so much sugar and drink so many sugar-based sodas,” Nash said. “And many parents don’t even look in their kids’ mouths. That’s the scary part.”
Nash believes that as the students from Seaside Heights School show their parents what was done during the screening and sealant, parents will recognize the need.
“I have been shocked to find out that at some of the school visits the kids tell us they don’t even own a toothbrush,” she said.
Johnson said the statewide school visits are helping to raise community awareness concerning the need to pay attention to children’s teeth.
“We rely on others to follow up with these children, “Johnson said. “And the local community is wonderful in doing that.”
Dan Gaffney, Seaside Heights School principal said the in-school dental program is effective.
“It is pretty difficult to concentrate on learning when you are in pain,” Gaffney said. “For some students, it is the first time that they have been seen by a dental professional. As a result of this program, we have students who are better able to progress in their learning because they are healthier and happier. It is a program that takes little time from normal classroom learning and pays off in a significant way for many children.”
“It costs us an average of about $7.00 to prevent a cavity through this program,” Shanie Mason, Oregon Health Authority oral health program manager, said. “The prevention program costs about $13 to $35 per child depending on whether a sealant is used.”
The $370,000 prevention program is funded every two years from Oregon’s general fund budget and is supplemented by federal matching money.