No parent wants to see a child suffering needlessly. When a youngster cries with pain, they feel the pain, too.

But too many parents don’t seem aware of young children’s most common cause of pain, or how to prevent it. Oral health promoter Kristen Griffiths says that’s why Alberta Health Services is offering a variety of dental health initiatives for children.

The province’s Oral Health Action Plan sees registered dental hygienists and dental assistants visiting schools and communities from offices in Lethbridge and across the south.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” says Griffiths.

Tooth decay and other oral conditions remain “the number one chronic disease of children six years of age and younger.”

Their short-term effects may include loss of appetite, problems with sleeping, absences from school — and continuing pain. Long-term, decayed teeth have been linked to diabetes and respiratory infections. As well, says Griffiths, it can “negatively affect a child’s self-esteem and their ability to learn, speak, eat and grow.”
In Alberta, a province without a universal dental care program for children, researchers have found the trip to a hospital’s emergency department is often the first time a professional has had a look at a child’s teeth.

Then, if surgery is recommended to remove abscessed “baby teeth,” parents may face a hefty bill. They’ll also be charged for the first hour of an anaesthetist’s time.

There’s no standard fee schedule for dental care in Alberta, but Griffiths points out there is Alberta Child Care Benefit coverage for families living on limited income. What the “action plan” aims at, she explains, is monitoring the dental health of “at risk” toddlers aged 12 to 35 months, while also providing school-based screening for children in their first few years in school.

Children with urgent care needs are then referred to the appropriate service, while health promotion initiatives continue for all students.

For the pre-school children, a fluoride varnish is applied, resulting in an 18 to 25 per cent reduction in cavities at all grade levels. Then for kindergarten to Grade 2 students in selected schools, that’s followed up with another varnish application or a “dental sealant” treatment.

Across the region, Griffiths says, 71 schools were visited during the 2014-15 school year, with services offered to 6,302 students in 37 communities. Then 3,437 received varnish, 1,590 were given a sealant. Among all the students screened, she says, 24 per cent showed “obvious decay” and more than five per cent needed treatment urgently.

While it’s no substitute for scheduled visits to a dentist, Griffiths urges parents to teach their children how to brush and floss their teeth regularly. She says fluoride toothpaste helps keep the teeth healthy, just as drinking fluoridated water does.

There’s no such protection in bottled water, but Griffiths says many schools are providing “refill stations” with (in Lethbridge and many communities) the recommended level of fluoride in the water on tap. Schools have also removed sugar-laced pop from their vending machines, she notes.

But sadly, she says, that’s often replaced by boxes or cans of fruit juices with just as much sugar. Alberta’s seniors are also considered an “at risk” group, she says, if they’ve living in long-term care facilities.

“The physical and cognitive impairments often faced by dependent seniors put them at a higher risk for oral disease,” she says.

The province’s oral health seniors’ program sees professionals working with facility staff members to ensure there’s daily care as well as assessment and referrals when required.

Griffiths explains, “Maintaining proper oral health will avert the risk of exacerbating other health conditions including aspiration pneumonia, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and malnutrition.”

Further information on the province’s oral health initiatives is available at the Community Health Centre in the historic CPR?Station downtown.