Durham County

Many Durham kindergarteners have tooth decay. Is there a way to solve that problem?

Dr Natalia Nunez Antley shows Rosie Quiller her son’s teeth during EdVenture’s Countdown to Kindergarten last summer.
Dr Natalia Nunez Antley shows Rosie Quiller her son’s teeth during EdVenture’s Countdown to Kindergarten last summer. tglantz@thestate.com

In Durham, 21 percent of students entering kindergarten come to school with tooth decay. By fifth grade, 39 percent of students in Durham have received dental sealants, which can prevent further decay.

Those numbers are contained in a new report from NC Child, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies related to child health and welfare. The report outlines disparities in access to dental care among the state’s 100 counties, and advocates for more school-based dental sealant programs as a low-cost and effective preventive to further decay.

Dental sealants are applied to molars and act as a barrier to food, reducing the possibility of decay. Sealants can reduce cavities by 80 percent for up to two years, and 50 percent for up to four years, NC Child states. In 2014, 25 to 49 percent of North Carolina schools with “high needs” had the school sealant programs, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.

Dental sealants are not the full solution to better dental health for children, but they offer an “opportunity for an in-school intervention to prevent additional decay,” said Rob Thompson, deputy director of NC Child.

His organization is lobbying for more school programs targeting high-risk children in rural and poor urban areas. NC Child is urging North Carolina to allow dental hygienists to provide the sealants in schools “regardless of whether those children have had a prior dental exam, a practice which the vast majority of other states currently allow,” the report states.

Not allowing hygienists to apply the sealants hurts many needy children, Thompson said. “Many children, particularly those without dental coverage, do not have access to preventive care,” he said. Those children not only do not have basic dental care, they “do not even have access to this basic level of care” and prevention, Thompson said.

Tooth decay can have a profound impact on children’s success in school, studies show. Thompson wants the report to remind people of the severity of tooth decay as a health problem. Solutions are available: “It’s a matter of removing some policy and practice barriers,” he said.

Cliff Bellamy; 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1