Ending a “Silent Epidemic”

boy cleans a teeth

It’s been called a “silent epidemic,” affecting almost 45% of children 6 years of age and younger nationwide. (1) In Vermont, it affects 16% of third graders and in New Hampshire 24% of third graders. According to the CDC, it’s five times as common as asthma and 7 times as common as hay fever (2).

It may surprise you to learn that this epidemic is actually childhood tooth decay. Whether or not you were aware that tooth decay is such a pervasive childhood disease, its prevalence should suggest the importance of early dental appointments for young children. Heidi Arndt, a dental hygienist and writer from RDH Magazine, reports that the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) advises parents to ensure that a pediatrician perform a basic oral health assessment six months after the appearance of a child’s first tooth and that a child’s first dentist visit should occur no later than the first birthday. Arndt states that early dental appointments are “critical to identifying early signs of ECC [early childhood caries (or cavities)], providing guidance and counsel on long-term treatment, and getting parents and children in the habit of visiting the dentist regularly.” What’s more, research has suggested that young children who visit a dentist have a greater likelihood of receiving regular preventive cleanings and are far less likely to visit a dentist for restorative reasons. Preventive screenings can help ensure that cavities are treated early or prevented altogether, thus saving children from losing teeth at an early age.

Although Arndt’s message is surely meant to highlight the necessity of dental appointments for very young children, she is quick to acknowledge yet another foundational aspect of the prevention of dental caries – the oral health of expectant mothers. This includes more than just conversations with mothers about ways to maintain her own oral health as well as that of her “soon-to-arrive baby.” She states that it is a “common misperception among dentists…that you can’t treat women while pregnant,” while the reality is that “it is safe to treat women up until birth” with the “best window…[being] between 14 and 20 weeks, according to the New York Department of Health.”

Above all else, prevention is key. You can’t help but be shocked by the fact that a disease which is 100% preventable affects almost half of all children in the U.S. under 6 years old. If prevention begins while the mother is pregnant and continues into the early months of a baby’s life, caries will become a “silent epidemic” of nothing more than the past.

1 Arndt, Slowing the Silent Epidemic

2 CDC Children’s Oral Health page

Vanessa Hurley

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