Two-thirds of children in West Virginia have cavities by age 8. That is far, far too many.
West Virginians drink a lot of sugary soft drinks. They use a lot of tobacco products. Both are bad for their teeth.
Small children, too, suffer from “Mountain Dew mouth” because their parents put soft drinks and sugary fruit juices in baby bottles and sippy cups for their children to drink in bed. The habit of drinking sugary drinks starts young and continues into adulthood.
Couple that with the fact that relatively few children in West Virginia see a dentist regularly and you have a prescription for dental problems in a large number of people in this state. But it’s not just here. It’s in Appalachia as a whole.
As reported by Laura Wilcox in The Herald-Dispatch a week ago, experts say many factors contribute to bad teeth, including a lack of fluoride, access to care and preventive action.
Experts say there is no single solution to the dental care problem, but many efforts are making a difference, said Bobbi Jo Muto, community oral health coordinator for the Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health at Marshall University.
One recently announced was a $500,000 grant for children’s oral health in West Virginia. Grant money will provide increased access to preventive services for youth through school-community partnerships.
Muto told Wilcox that preventive care should be a priority in the region.
“If we can just make people realize they don’t have to lose their teeth. They don’t have to have a cavity. It’s 100 percent preventable, and yet we have all these children with rampant decay,” she said.
It’s another of those areas that come down to parents taking responsibility for their children’s dental health, just as they take responsibility for other aspects of health. That means instructing them in good dental care, making sure they see a dentist and being aware of what they eat and drink.
Unfortunately, the stereotype of the toothless Appalachian is always good for an easy laugh. That’s why Jay Leno was able to say this about the proposed Barbie ban in the West Virginia Legislature: “They want to make it illegal to sell Barbie dolls in West Virginia cause they say the dolls give girls unreal expectations. See, apparently in West Virginia, dolls that have all of their teeth are not considered realistic.”
There is no reason in the 21st century that so many children should have so many dental problems. Access to care can be expensive. Legislators are working on that, and more Medicaid money for dental care could be available when the session ends. Gov. Joe Manchin has asked dentists to volunteer one day a month to help people who otherwise could not or would not seek dental care.
Outreach programs in schools also could reach children who now don’t know about basic dental health or who know about it but don’t practice it.
It will take a combination of outreach programs and families taking responsibility for their own health, but it has to be done. Appalachians have a history of poor dental care. It needs to stop with this generation once it has been taught what it needs to do, once people do what they must and once they have the resources to take care of themselves.