Local children get new smiles

Sunday, February 3, 2008

More than 2,500 children from local low-income families across Indiana will receive free dental services in February -- ranging from cleanings, examinations, fillings, sealants and other dental procedures as part of the Sixth Annual National Give Kids A Smile Day (GKAS).

On Friday, at least 20 Greencastle children will benefit from the same service, as pediatric dentist John D. Hennette and his dental team donate their time and services to combat the local problem of pediatric tooth decay.

Hennette says his practice has worked closely with school nurse Polly Shuee and the Greencastle elementary school system to get as many students involved in the program as possible.

Statewide, students age 16 or younger who either do not have access to dental insurance or who are on Medicaid but do not have a dental home were identified by local nurses as needing dental treatment. The students' families were encouraged to call the GASK hotline to schedule and appointment with a local volunteer office. Several Head Start programs also identified students as needing immediate dental care and were referred to the closest GASK volunteer.

In Greencastle, kindergarten and first grade students were identified for services through dental screenings at area schools and were recommended for GKAS by school nurses.

Last year in Indiana, more than $476,000 of dental treatment was donated to more than 2,240 children by 1,183 dentists and dental team members across the state. This year, GKAS is estimating to reach $500,000 in treatment to over 2,500 children.

"It's heartbreaking to see a child's smile destroyed by severe tooth decay," said Dr. Catherine Periolat of the Indiana Dental Association, who is participating in Give Kids a Smile.

"Imagine not being able to hear, sleep and pay attention in school because you have a mouthful of toothaches," Dr. Periolat said.

"Some children have reached the point were the only alternative is a mouth full of crowns or pulling the teeth that cannot be saved. It's tragic. Our state needs to do more to help children get the dental care they need."

Rates of childhood tooth decay appear to be on the rise in Greencastle as well. Dr. Hennette links the increase in need to increasing local poverty rates.

"Fifty percent of kindergarteners this year qualified for the free lunch program this year," Hennette said. "This year we noticed a lot of children with decay. There are a lot of factors involved, but it's more than I've seen in the last three or four years."

Nearly one in four children, age two to 11 years have untreated cavities in their baby teeth, according to the CDC. While poor diet and oral hygiene certainly play a role, cavities are actually caused by a disease called caries, which is five times more common than asthma.

The National Institute of Health reports that 80 percent of tooth decay is found in just 25 percent of children, primarily from low-income families.

Public health programs such as Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) are supposed to help underserved children, but utilization rates are low.

"Here in Indiana, only 37.6 percent of children enrolled in the Medicaid program received any dental services in 2004," Dr. Periolat said. "That number isn't surprising when you learn that our state Medicaid program spends just 2.62 percent on dental services for children and adults."

Dentists cannot do this alone," Dr. Periolat said. "With Give Kids a Smile, we can help some children get the dental care they need, but a one-day event will never be enough. Charity is not a health care system."

According to Hennette, every child seen in his office as part of GKAS will not just have a complete screening and cleaning, but have any dental need met free of charge. If work cannot be completed on Feb. 8, they will make follow up appointments until the work is done.

"Children's oral health is everyone's business -- not just dentists. We need to participate as a community and as a nation. We need to find the political will to solve this problem," Dr. Periolat said. "It will not happen overnight. But if enough people start working on it, it will happen."

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