By Fred Kiga
A healthy mouth is about more than a pleasant smile. Good oral health is important at every age and is essential to overall health.
Oral disease is almost entirely preventable, yet tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood illness. Poor oral health disproportionately impacts communities of color, people who speak a language other than English at home and immigrant communities.
The most recent Smile Survey for King County, conducted in 2015 by the Washington Department of Health, showed that 40% of Asian American children in grades kindergarten through third grade had at least one cavity compared to 31% of white schoolchildren. Equally concerning, 18% of young Asian American kids had untreated cavities in comparison to 12% of white classmates.
Pain from oral health problems make it difficult for children to learn, sleep and eat healthy foods. Kids with cavities and other oral health problems tend to miss more school days and often are embarrassed to smile and participate in class.
These problems just don’t go away as children grow older. Studies find that children with oral health problems are more likely to have them in adulthood. Visible decay and missing teeth can impact job opportunities, overall health, nutrition and how others perceive them.
These health disparities are not acceptable. More needs to be done so that every child has the opportunity for good oral health. The good news is that with good oral hygiene, regular preventive dental care and public health measures like community water fluoridation, it is possible for kids to grow up cavity-free.
Communities throughout Washington State, including most King County communities, and the United States balance fluoride in community water systems to help strengthen teeth and protect them against painful cavities. This proven, effective public health tool has helped improve oral health for generations.
Studies consistently show that drinking tap water that contains optimum fluoride levels reduces cavities by 25%, saving families money from expensive dental treatments and sparing people from the devastating effects of poor oral health.
Yet Washington State lags the nation when it comes to providing residents with the optimum amounts of fluoride in their drinking water. Nearly three-quarters of US residents (73%) live in communities with water fluoridation. But in Washington State, a little over half (56%) of residents receive fluoridated water from their community water systems.
We can and should do better.
There is no reason why anyone should suffer needlessly from oral disease or be more susceptible to painful cavities because of where they live. We need to support programs and approaches that ensure all people have the opportunity for good oral and overall health, including water fluoridation.
Everyone deserves to enjoy the benefits of good oral health and the opportunity to be productive and pain free. We can advance health equity for all Washington residents by working together to support proven, effective public health tools like community water fluoridation.
Fred Kiga is is a former member of the Board of Trustees at Arcora Foundation, the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington.