Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Happy teeth

Even though it's preventable, oral disease is the No. 1 chronic disease in children. Unfortunately, oral health is not often the first thing that comes to mind when you think of primary care — a problem many advocates and practitioners have been trying to change.

Gum disease and cavities don't just affect a child’s appearance. Oral health problems can inhibit nutrition and physical development and without access to good preventive care, they can be exceptionally costly to fix.

In Tuesday afternoon’s session on “Mouths Matter: Maryland Leading the Way,” Harry Goodman, director of Maryland’s Office of Oral Health, discussed ways in which Maryland is blazing the trail for improved oral health services for children. Oral health advocates and leaders at the state and national levels jumped into high gear when the state suffered a devastating loss that got significant media attention: Deamonte Driver, a 12- year-old boy from Prince George’s County, Md., had an untreated dental infection that resulted in more than $250,000 in medical costs and ultimately led to Driver's death in 2007.

Goodman showed a picture of Driver and asked session attendees to “never to forget this face.” Driver’s life could have been saved by routine preventive care, Goodman said.

Since Driver’s death, Maryland has advanced a number of policy efforts that are bringing the opportunities for better oral health to the state's under-served children. Among the efforts: Maryland established an oral health advisory committee to advocate for better access to care; the state successfully passed legislation to create an oral health safety net; surveillance efforts have been conducted to gather data on schoolchildren; and a five-year oral health plan was developed. Through federal funding, Maryland is also launching an oral health literacy campaign targeting low-income families.

Debony Hughes, of the grassroots organization the Deamonte Driver Dental Project, credits a number of policy champions for the state's progress, including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. With the help of state funding, the Deamonte Driver Dental Project established a mobile dental clinic, which has provided preventive services for more than 1,000 children in 19 of Prince George’s County's elementary schools.

In fact, the mobile unit is parked right now in the Public Health Expo, so go check it out and get a tour of the colorful, traveling dental clinic.

— M.S.

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