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Nearly 1 in 4 Polk kindergarteners suffer from dental decay

A recent report from a statewide child advocacy organization found that 23 percent of kindergarten-age children in Polk County suffer from dental decay.

NC Child stated that this problem can impair the children’s ability to learn, and significantly impact their school performance.

“Dental decay is the most common disease among children in North Carolina and has an immediate and lasting impact on a child’s overall health and school performance,” said Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child. “Tooth decay is linked to heart and lung disease, diabetes, and stroke, and has a documented impact on GPA and school attendance.”

NC Child was created on Jan. 1, 2014, through a merger of Action for Children North Carolina, founded in 1996, and the Action for Children North Carolina, which was founded in 1983. The nonprofit organization is supported by service providers, professional associations, and other advocacy groups and uses research, data analysis, advocacy, and education to advocate for children and influence policymakers.

NC Child is advocating for school-based sealant programs, which they state can “. . . offer a powerful solution to address the growing problem of dental decay.” According to NC Child, sealants cut cavities by 80 percent for up to two years and 50 percent for up to four years.

Very few communities have continuous sealant programs. NC Child states that not all North Carolina counties have ready access to dentists, and children from poor, rural counties tend to have the highest rates of dental decay. While the national average is 6.1 dentists per 10,000 people, there are 2.4 dentists per 10,000 people in Polk County, and, in three eastern counties, there are no dentists at all.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services Oral Health Section provides rotating sealant projects at approximately 50-100 schools per year. NC Child states that 56 percent of Polk county children are receiving dental sealants that can prevent further decay.

Because dental hygienists provide sealants in SBSPs, children in areas without accessible dentists could receive preventive care.

However, current state law prevents dental hygienists from providing preventive care, including sealants, without a prior dental exam. This restriction makes the wide-scale adoption of SBSPs challenging, since so many of the children in need do not have access to dental services.

“One of the keys to increasing oral health for all North Carolinians is to bring affordable preventive services to where people are. If policy barriers were removed, hygienists could do a lot more in terms of bringing essential preventive oral health care to children in a setting that they know well, their schools,” said Zulayka Santiago, executive director of the Oral Health Collaborative.

NC Child is advocating for targeting children at high risk for tooth decay and increase children’s access to sealants by eliminating unnecessary rules that limit the use of appropriately trained and licensed dental hygienists in placing sealants.

The Tryon Daily Bulletin contacted Polk County Schools Preschool & Nursing Director Kathy Harding for more information. Harding referred the Bulletin to the Polk County Health Department Dental Center, where its supervisor was unavailable for comment.