SALT LAKE CITY — Plastic sealants used to be applied to the teeth of nearly half of all children during routine dental visits at a young age, but new survey results reveal that fewer Utah children are receiving the protective coating treatment.
And while sealant use has gone down over the past five years, children in certain populations are getting fewer cavities. Still, the state's oral health director believes some underserved populations could use better access to the preventive dental procedure.
"Sealants are certainly underutilized," said Dr. Steven J. Steed. "And we see them as having great potential."
A statewide oral health survey, conducted by the Utah Department of Health in 2010, found that just 36 percent of 8-year-olds had sealants, compared to 45 percent in 2005, when the last survey was completed. Steed said awareness of the available procedure has dropped over the years, resulting in fewer dentists using the thin plastic coating that has been proven to decrease decay on the chewing surfaces of a child's teeth.
"Somehow oral health and its connection to overall health is somewhat overlooked," he said. "I think many times it is not given the value that it needs."
Among 3,025 6- to 9-year-old children who received a dental screening, more than half (52 percent) had prior tooth decay, while close to 17 percent had untreated cavities, according to the report. Of those screened, 2 percent had extensive tooth decay, infection and/or pain.
"This means these children needed urgent dental care," Steed said. "If we take that 2 percent sample and apply it across the state, we believe there are more than 2,600 first-, second- and third-graders who need to see a dentist today."
More than 22 percent of parents surveyed in 2010 reported their child had no dental insurance, and an additional 13 percent said there was a time during the past year when their child needed dental care but was unable to get it.
According to the survey, children with private dental insurance were less likely than the uninsured to have filled or unfilled cavities or to have lost a tooth due to decay, 45 percent versus 55 percent. Untreated decay was also twice as prevalent among children without dental insurance, 27 percent versus 13 percent. And Hispanic and non-white children were more likely to have unmet needs when compared to the overall population surveyed.
"There is a common belief among immigrants in the myth that it is inevitable to lose most of your teeth at an early age," said Mauricio Agramont, Midvale's Oral Health Program manager. "This is a direct result of a lack of access to basic oral health information and preventive care. The gap in knowledge that Latino immigrants bring with them to this country is passed on to their children, creating a vicious cycle of poor dental health."
A local charitable organization, Sealants for Smiles, has been visiting low-income schools in Salt Lake, Davis and Tooele counties, and applying sealants at no cost to second- and sixth-grade students who don't have dental insurance. Steed said the procedure can bring an up to 40 percent reduction in biting surface cavities, showing the greatest benefit for molars that come in between ages 6 and 7, and again between ages 11 and 13.
The sealants can last up to 10 years with proper care, including regular brushing, flossing and a healthy diet.
Community water fluoridation, which was added in Davis County in 2002, and in Salt Lake County in 2003, has helped to decrease cavities in some children, but the report reveals 23 percent of Utah children surveyed drink only bottled water.
About 54 percent of Utahns live where fluoridated water is available.2 comments on this story
Healthy baby teeth, Steed said, are important because while they do fall out, "they help to guide the permanent teeth in and if they aren't taken care of, then it does impact the permanent teeth, the alignment of the teeth and can have an impact on oral health for the rest of their lives."
Consequences of untreated dental decay include chronic mouth pain, problems with eating, infection and difficulty in learning. According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, children in America miss 52 million hours of school each year due to dental related illnesses.
Although dental decay is preventable, it remains the most common chronic childhood disease, Steed said. A copy of the complete report is available online, at www.health.utah.gov/oralhealth.