August 19th, 2010
05:26 PM ET
The University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital are teaming to combat the rise of childhood dental disease in the U.S. by opening the first Center for Pediatric Dentistry. The center will not only provide modern dental care to local children but also seek to raise awareness about early intervention and preventing disease in first place, says Dr. Joel Berg, the center’s director.
Parents and even many pediatricians aren’t aware of just how early children’s teeth can begin rotting. The center's targeting of tooth decay in infants, preschoolers and toddlers makes it unique, says Dr. John S. Rutkauskas, CEO of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). Rutkauskas tells CNN he believes this center could be a model for other practices.
Berg can’t hide his passion for trying to prevent tooth decay in the youngest patients. He sees too many little kids who are too young to sit still, so the only way they can get their cavities treated is by going to the operating room and undergoing full anesthesia.
He says he recently had to refer five children to OR in one day. Surgery is often the only option if a 2 and a half year old needs 15 teeth operated on – either to get fillings, or have pulp therapy (which is like a baby root canal) or get teeth pulled, he says.
Getting a child proper dental care is essential but not always common, and children in lower-income families often don't see a dentist. “Almost half of the kids in the U.S. are born into Medicaid [needing government assistance for health care]. Of those children, about two-thirds of them haven’t had regular dental visits by age 6 – but interestingly most of them have all their vaccinations,” Berg explains.
The number of children getting cavities is on the rise, particularly among the youngest. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD): “Tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease—5 times more common than asthma, 4 times more common than early childhood obesity, and 20 times more common than diabetes.”
The CDC reports more than a quarter of children have tooth decay in baby teeth before entering kindergarten and by the time children are 19 years old, they have had some decay in permanent teeth.
Tooth decay can begin as early as teeth begin to emerge, which happens around 6 months of age. Tooth decay or early childhood caries, can progress very quickly and lead to a lot of pain for the child and huge medical costs – the cost of fixing cavities in the operating room can run at least $20,000.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) first began recommending that children find a “dental home” by age 1 back in 2003, according to Dr. Martha Ann Keels, a pediatric dentist at Duke University and spokesperson for the AAP.
Many parents appear to be unaware of new guidelines for children's early tooth care. The current guideline is that children should have had their first dental visit by their first birthday. Previous recommendations called for a child’s first visit to the dentist at age 3.
Keels, who also finds herself treating young patients in the OR, says parents need to be aware of the risks that come with tooth decay. In the worst case scenarios, Keels says, “Upper abscess teeth can lead to brain infection – lower abscess teeth can lead to heart disease.”
Berg says the pain and suffering kids experience can be enormous . “Children die each year from this," he says. "Fortunately not many, but one is too much.”
Keels and Berg emphasize that all of this is preventable.
One of the goals of the center in Seattle is to give pediatricians a chance to learn how to identify the tots at highest risk for dental problems. Pediatricians could screen babies' teeth when they come in for regularly scheduled check-ups. They could also learn about new technologies that would allow them to find microscopically small decay. If caries can’t be prevented, catching and treating it as early as possible is the next goal. For example, one new technology uses fluorescent light. Even if the decay is not clearly visible, it reflects different light waves when there's damage, Berg explains.
Parents also need to know the basics.
“The more parents I can teach how to brush their children’s teeth, the more cavities I can prevent,” Berg says.
The Center for Pediatric Dentistry is scheduled to open on September 1.
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