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Health & Wellness

Clinics Turn Up The Volume On A Silent Epidemic

BJ Austin

The most common chronic childhood disease is almost invisible. You don’t see it like the chicken pox, or hear it like a sneeze. It’s tooth decay.

The cavity rate among Texas children is higher than the national average. 

Earlier this month, 10-year-old Marco started his day with older and taller kids at Vivian Field Middle School. A really bad toothache brought him to the Community Dental Clinic in Farmers Branch, located inside the middle school. It was his very first visit to a dentist.

The slender boy with dark hair and glasses seemed relieved when Dr. Rekah Shenoy asked him to open up so she could take a look.   

“He tried some herbal remedy at home, so his teeth look blue,” Shenoy said. “His mom said somehow it’s a remedy that takes the pain away. I’ve never heard of this, but yes.”

Dr. Shenoy looked past the blue tint on his teeth and found serious decay on his molars.

U.S. health officials say an estimated 51 million school hours are lost each year because of dental problems. Tooth decay is five times more common than asthma among children.

“We call it the silent epidemic,” said Paul Hoffmann, executive director of Community Dental Care.  He says there needs to be a lot more education about the importance of healthy teeth and gums.  

“We’re finding that the children that come to us, it’s not unusual for some of the parents not to realize that sugar causes decay,” Hoffmann said. “And they don’t know simple things, like the importance of brushing every evening.”

The school-based dental clinic for low-income patients is one of 13 non-profit Community Dental Care clinics in Dallas and Collin counties, and the only one in a school. Hoffmann says many patients just walk down the hall to the dentist after class.  Hoffmann believes the location is a real plus.

“You know because they’re comfortable coming to school and in the same building they can come to a dental clinic,” said Hoffmann. “ We have a lot of loyalty and a lot of trust because of that.”

Dr. Elba Garcia, Dallas County Commissioner and a dentist says a dental clinic on school grounds is a great idea. There is a state program that delivers preventive dental services to low-income kids at school in several rural areas of the state. Dentists in mobile “Head Start’ vans provide basic services such as sealants and fluoride varnish. Dr. Garcia says that model, bringing the dentist to the child, could be expanded. 

“I think that would be a great program to have in schools, where the dentist comes to you; especially in those areas where we know parents work two-three jobs, they don’t have transportation; or in those communities where there is no public transportation,” Garcia said. “ So, we can make the system work.”

Dr. Garcia would like to see state and federal lawmakers consider a program to help dental school graduates with their hefty student loans in exchange for starting their careers in mobile clinics serving schools. A recent National Survey of Children’s Health showed 14 percent of all Texas children had never seen a dentist.  Low-income African-American and Hispanic children have the most untreated cavities.

“One of the saddest things that you can see is a child in pain,” Garcia said. “And of course a child that is sick, that has pain, that cannot eat, that cannot sleep, cannot learn.”

Community Dental Clinic’s Paul Hoffmann says additional funding from the state and United Way is allowing the Vivian Field clinic to add another day to its schedule – operating three days a week starting in October. Hoffmann says the demand for low income dental care could easily fill a five-day schedule, but the resources to do that just aren’t there. 

A group of 12- and 13-year-old Field Middle School students chatted about how going to the dentist can be scary. But, they agreed it’s also the cool thing to do. 

“The needles are scary."

"Yeah, most of the needles are scary.  Just close your eyes. That’s what I do."

“For kids who don’t go to the dentist, go to the dentist.  Get your teeth fixed and then you’ll be cool and you’ll get girls,"  said a boy heading to school on his bike.

"Oh, right!” replied the giggling girls.