THE recent measles outbreak that has infected more than 100 people nationwide, including eight cases in Washington state, is a wake-up call regarding the value of prevention and the high costs of neglecting it.
As a health officer and primary-care doctor on the Olympic Peninsula, the site of five confirmed measles cases, I and other health-care professionals have been working hard to contain this highly contagious disease. Controlling this outbreak has been costly and time-consuming, further stressing already depleted public-health budgets. Prevention is always preferable to treating sickness, and proven measures that ward off disease save both lives and money.
Like vaccinations, community water fluoridation is a proven safe and effective public-health tool. Throughout 70 years of practical application in this country, fluoridation has been shown to reduce cavities by up to 25 percent and help combat oral disease safely and effectively.
Despite the tremendous amount of evidence that supports its safety and efficacy, fluoridated water is not available for more than one-third of the people in Washington state.
Fluoridation, like vaccination, has been the relentless target of misinformation campaigns and fear mongering that run contrary to decades of scientific research supporting its safety. Those who oppose water fluoridation have made inaccurate claims about it, some of them similar to the arguments used against vaccinations. Those arguments do not hold up under scientific scrutiny.
Dental problems are a leading cause of absenteeism among young children in school and can have serious long-term impacts on quality of life. Cavity treatment also can be costly, and tooth decay has been linked to serious health problems including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Forward-thinking community leaders in cities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Everett demonstrated their commitment to building a healthy community years ago by adding fluoride to the water. If you live in Renton, Oak Harbor, Vancouver, Pullman or Kent, you have long enjoyed the benefits of fluoride and better oral health.
However, cities such as Olympia, Enumclaw, Bellingham, Spokane, Walla Walla and Federal Way, which gets its water from the Lakehaven Utility District, do not have fluoridated water. That’s because the decision to fluoridate is made at the local level.
In these and similar communities, health professionals, civic leaders and families should urge their water purveyors to make a positive investment in oral-health disease prevention and advocate for community water fluoridation. To find out if your water system has enough fluoride, visit the state Department of Health’s webpage on fluoride.
Community water fluoridation, like widespread vaccination, is regarded as one of the top 10 greatest public-health achievements of the last century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it is safe and it works. State fluoridation guidelines, which include requiring water utilities to monitor fluoride concentrations daily, ensure optimum oral-health protection at recommended levels.
Highly respected health organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Dental Association and American Public Health Association, also support fluoridation.
With increased awareness of the dangers of failing to invest in prevention, now is an opportune time to reconsider the benefits of fluoridation and to recognize that it too plays an important role in maintaining the public’s health.
Tooth cavities are a preventable, epidemic disease just like measles, mumps and a number of other vaccine-preventable diseases. Whether we choose to invest in prevention or not is a choice we make as individuals and as a community. Failure to invest in prevention is always costly. It results in unnecessary pain and suffering, and, in the case of some communicable diseases, can have fatal consequences.
Dr. Tom Locke is health officer for Jefferson County, deputy health officer for Clallam County and is chair of the Washington Dental Service Foundation board.