NEW ORLEANS — Community drinking water not treated with fluoride is an open invitation to tooth decay, a dental consultant to the Louisiana Office of Public Health said Friday.

“We have to have fluoride in the water, or we get decay,” Dr. Greg Folse, who sits on the faculty of LSU Health Sciences Center’s School of Dentistry and has a practice in Lafayette, said during an oral health summit in New Orleans.

Only 48 percent of Louisiana’s drinking water is fluoridated, said Lori Kushner, project coordinator of the Agenda for Children advocacy group’s children’s oral health initiative.

Folse, a consultant to the Office of Public Health’s Oral Health Program, said fluoride in drinking water saves teeth, reduces dental-care expenses and is safe. Kushner called fluoridated drinking water the single most effective way to prevent tooth decay.

Folse and Kushner said access to dental care also is a problem for many Louisianians, particularly for those in rural areas and for the elderly.

“Our frail elderly need access to dental care,” Folse said. “They sit, and they don’t get the care they need.”

Karen Oertling, director of the Office of Public Health’s Oral Health Program, said children in rural Louisiana have a tougher time accessing dental care than their urban counterparts. In most rural areas, she said, there are no pediatric dentists available.

David Hood, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, said Louisiana ranked 26th in 1998 in terms of the number of dentists with 2,000 — or 45 dentists per 100,000 residents.

For many Louisianians, Oertling said, access to dental care is inherently related to the ability to afford it. Children living in poverty are twice as likely to experience dental decay, she said.

Kushner described oral health as an “integral part” of a person’s overall health.

LSU Health Sciences Center officials say links have been found between periodontal disease and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and adverse pregnancy outcomes. They also say dental decay is one of the most-common childhood diseases, more than five times as common as asthma and seven times as common as hay fever.

LSU Health Sciences Center’s School of Dentistry held the oral health summit in conjunction with the Office of Public Health.