NOTE FROM FAN: Fluoridation in Philadelphia began September 1, 1954

The first time I stepped from Erie Avenue onto our Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, I met a child who was experiencing some of the worst tooth decay I have ever seen. His gums were swollen and red. The few baby teeth poking out from his infected gums were riddled with cavities. His face was scrunched up with fear and pain. The worst part? He was barely a year old.

That little boy’s face has stayed with me ever since – and, in many ways, he has become the symbol for the work St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children does every day in North Philadelphia. Our dentists, volunteers and program leaders witness some of the most critical health and wellness challenges among children and their families in forgotten pockets of the city – places where the news cameras tend to tread only when there’s loss or violence.

But the truth is – the health crisis I witnessed that day is a chronic issue that permeates much of our community, a community that’s contending with an enormous dearth of basic resources and far too little education. We’re seeing more children younger than this boy with severe tooth decay. More than 30 percent of the kids being treated by our Care Mobile have untreated tooth decay younger than the age of three.

In fact, 25 percent of American children between the ages of two and five are suffering from dental disease. In neighborhoods like North Philly – that number increases to 80 percent, most of which goes untreated.

These are often children whose schools have closed and whose resources have decreased in the schools that have experienced cuts to staff. A problem that may have ordinarily been caught by a school nurse or heath aid is being missed – and the impact will be felt for many years to come, not only in terms of a child’s basic health, but also his or her future prospects if they fall through the cracks.

Children who have untreated oral health problems suffer from many other issues in addition to pain – including issues related to speech, sleeplessness, poor eating habits and trouble concentrating. At their worst, infections can even cause premature death. That’s why we’re seeing an increase in emergency room visits for dental problems in the last few years.

I’m reminded of a quote, “Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” When I speak with kids and their families about the value of oral health, as well as why we fund the programs we do, I try to express that despite some of the challenges we may all face each day – like economic, safety and health concerns – it’s as if we all have 30 diamonds in our mouths. And these proverbial diamonds – our teeth (yes, even the baby ones) – are worth taking care of because we all have worth.

Children should see a dentist for the first time before his or her first birthday, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. There are other ways to help care for infant’s teeth, like wiping gums with a clean, wet gauze pad or washcloth after each feeding and brushing a child’s teeth with a soft, child-sized brush beginning when the first tooth appears. We also encourage mothers to reconsider nursing or feeding for prolonged periods, which can sometimes add to decay. Never put a child down for a nap with a bottle of milk, formula, sugar water or fruit juice.

The good news is that for as many young children I see in critical dental pain, I’m also meeting more families who are making changes to prevent these worst-case scenarios, like encouraging children to drink from cups by their first birthday – and avoiding sippy cups filled with sugary drinks (when in doubt – water is the best option). Parents and caregivers are learning from the challenges of having a first child. More moms and dads are bringing their second and third children to our mobile unit – and we are sometimes seeing less tooth decay and cavities, proving that education and resources can make a difference.

We’re also making efforts to encourage families to drink tap water with fluoride to strengthen teeth at earlier ages. The results can help establish better dental habits and can even encourage healthier diets down the road.

Change isn’t easy for any of us, especially when it goes against what we may have learned from our own parents or grandparents for several generations. But when kids show up to the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile for the first time without a new cavity – and when I see fewer children like the boy I met that blustery cold morning on Erie Avenue – I’m confident that even in the most impoverished neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, we’ll see more children smiling.

Learn more about the SCFC’s Community Oral Health Initiative and Ronald McDonald Care Mobile here.