Dental program brightens smiles on Western Slope
Last year, nearly 1,200 children from 12 schools brushed up on oral health through Garfield County Public Health’s School-Based Dental Program.
Starting with one hygienist in two schools when it launched in 2008, the program — which provides second-, third- and sixth-graders with dental screenings, fluoride treatments, dental sealants and education — has quickly spread throughout Garfield County’s three school districts thanks to strong partnerships between the Health Department, the Aspen to Parachute Dental Health Alliance and local schools.
“The schools are very appreciative and open their doors to us,” said Kelly Keeffe, a regional oral health consultant with the alliance. “We know the program is needed; 42 percent of students are signing up for our services.”
Participating schools have a high percentage of children from low-income families. At least half of the students in these schools qualify for the free or reduced-cost lunch program.
Many of the students that Keeffe sees experienced their first dental appointment through the school program. Children identified with serious dental issues are referred to area dentists for treatment.
About 30 percent of the kids seen in the school program have immediate dental concerns that need to be addressed. Keeffe recounted one example of a young man who had never visited the dentist yet had decay in his permanent molars.
“He said he didn’t have his own toothbrush,” she said. After the visitation, Keeffe gave a toothbrush and toothpaste to the young student and each of his siblings. She also helped to link him to a dentist in Parachute where he could receive needed dental treatment.
Educating parents and kids about the importance of oral hygiene is more than half of the battle.
This is one of the goals of the program, which has been funded by Caring for Colorado Foundation since its beginning in 2008.
“Ninety-nine percent of decay is preventable by simply brushing, flossing and eating well,” pointed out Carrie Godes, special projects coordinator for Garfield Public Health. Godes noted that cavities are contagious. “If one person in a family has a cavity, it is possible to pass the germ that causes cavities to other people in the home by sharing things such as forks and spoons. This is why we are trying to make good oral hygiene part of the routine for the entire family.”
Though conveying the importance of dental care to parents is often a challenge, children can literally feel it when their oral health is compromised. The results can impact a child’s happiness or even a report card.
Recent statistics show a link between oral health and academic performance. According to a 2012 National Institutes of Health study, students with toothaches were almost four times more likely to have a lower grade point average than those without. Roughly 11 percent of kids without dental care were likely to miss school compared to 4 percent for those with access to care.
While some kids are apprehensive about their first experience, Keeffe said, most of them loosen up during their visit. “We don’t have needles or drills, so we’re pretty nonthreatening.”
Skyler, a second-grader, was quick to express his enthusiasm about the program.
“It was exciting for me because it was my first time going to the dentist — at school! And we got [a goody bag] at the end,” he said.
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Garfield County counted five new deaths attributed to COVID-19 over the past six weeks, even as the county’s vaccination rate continues to go up.