The Cavity Crisis
Tooth decay in children is a serious problem around Rhode Island and across income levels. It’s even landing some kids in the operating room.
Illustrations by Tim Bradford
Sheila Leonard couldn’t believe what she was hearing at her son Nathan’s dentist appointment seven months ago. Her first-grader had cavities — four of them.
“I was kind of shocked,” says the mother of two from Cumberland. “I took it personally.”
Leonard and her son are hardly alone. A 2010–2011 study conducted by the Oral Health Program at the Rhode Island Department of Health found that half of all third-grade children in the state have cavities. The study also found that one out of four children has untreated tooth decay and needs dental care, and that only 40 percent have dental sealants, a treatment that helps prevent tooth decay on permanent molar teeth.
Although it’s preventable, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of childhood — about five times more common than asthma, according to the study.
In addition, only 58 percent of children ages one through five in Rhode Island saw a dentist in the previous year, according to a 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. That contradicts the guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, which recommends that children see a dentist by the time they turn one.
Some children are even going into the operating room to fix the extensive damage to their still-young teeth. In 2010, 754 children received dental care in the operating room of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence, according to a Rhode Island Kids Count September 2011 issue brief. And more than 860 children visited Rhode Island emergency rooms — rather than a dentist — for dental-related conditions between 2005 and 2009.
Pediatric dentist Dr. Craig Elice, who has offices in Cranston and Providence, agrees with the numbers. Children in higher socioeconomic groups have seen the greatest increase in dental cavities, he says, while children in lower-income families have always had a high rate of tooth decay.
That finding was echoed in the Department of Health report, which found that minority children are more likely to have untreated tooth decay than their peers in wealthier cities and towns.
Some reasons for the disparity have to do with deeply ingrained cultural beliefs such as putting a child to bed with a bottle, dipping a pacifier in honey or feeding a baby at will when he or she is crying.
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