USC University of Southern California

Three out of four disadvantaged kids in LA have untreated dental disease

A huge percentage of underprivileged kids in Los Angeles County have infectious dental disease that’s gone unchecked, according to a study led by the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of the University of Southern California.

In the report, “The Children’s Dental Health Project of Los Angeles County,” released during February’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, researchers Roseann Mulligan and Hazem Seirawan reveal that a staggering 72 percent of disadvantaged kids have untreated caries, the bacterial disease responsible for tooth decay. Dentists screened more than 2,300 children at 59 Head Start centers, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) centers, and elementary and high schools throughout the county. This groundbreaking study is the most comprehensive study on oral health in underprivileged children ever conducted in Los Angeles County, surveying children of a wide range of ages, races and degrees of caries infection.

A “silent epidemic” with five times the prevalence of asthma, caries is the most common chronic disease in children and can result in serious pain and illnesses affecting parts of the body beyond the mouth, says Mulligan, Chair of the Division of Dental Public Health and Pediatric Dentistry at the Ostrow School of Dentistry. The disease is an infectious process, with bacteria being able to pass between individuals via shared eating utensils, kissing and other forms of contact, and the pain caused by the disease is a huge contributor to school absences throughout the county.

The study also explains many of the complex social, logistical and economic factors that make disadvantaged kids more likely to suffer from untreated dental caries. One significant barrier is dental insurance; many kids aren’t covered by Denti-Cal, California’s public dental insurance program, and the parents of those kids that are covered may still have trouble regularly seeing a dentist since only about half of the dentists in Los Angeles County accept Denti-Cal, says Seirawan, research assistant professor at the Ostrow School of Dentistry. Other factors include poor oral hygiene habits, inadequate nutrition, the consumption of bottled versus fluoridated tap water, and more.

The study proposes several suggestions for lessening the impact of dental disease among the county’s underprivileged children. From encouraging better oral health education at the school and community level and supporting the organizations providing care to disadvantaged kids, to helping more dentists serve lower-income communities after they graduate and campaigning for policy changes within local and state government, there’s plenty that members of the community can do to help Los Angeles kids fight dental caries, Mulligan says.

The project was conducted with the help of faculty from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry and was supported by First 5 LA, the Annenberg Foundation, the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation. Learn more about the study at http://www.first5la.org/articles/national-childrens-dental-health-month-tackling-an-epidemic.

See the full report: Children’s Dental Health Project of Los Angeles County (PDF)

Photo: A child receives toothbrushing advice during one of the screening events for the project.