American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children experience dental decay at a higher rate than the general U.S. population. In order to prevent dental cavities in the primary teeth, we must intervene before the first cavity develops, working with both mothers and infants. As children enter Head Start, we want to prevent future cavities in the erupting permanent teeth. In the 1999 Indian Health Service survey of 2,663 preschool children ages 2-5, 79% had a history of dental decay and 68% had untreated dental decay. Over 50% had severe Early Childhood Cavities (ECC).
Severe Early Childhood Cavities (ECC) causes pain and infection. Some children learn to live with this pain day in and day out. ECC results in increased missed school days and an inability to concentrate at school. Pain also affects a child's sleep and nutrition, resulting in poor overall health and well being. ECC can even result in poor self-esteem and a reluctance to smile. The primary teeth are important for eating, holding space for the permanent teeth, talking, and smiling.
Dental cavities are a preventable, infectious, transmissible disease caused by a certain type of acid-producing bacteria. The bacteria that cause tooth decay are fueled by sweet foods and drinks and other fermentable carbohydrates like white crackers. Dental treatment alone does not stop the bacteria. Even after traditional dental treatment, the disease rages on for high-risk children. Treatment of Head Start children must be accompanied by use of topical fluorides, antimicrobials, and other interventions to prevent future dental decay in the permanent teeth.
To learn more, check out these two documents:
The Oral Health for Head Start Children: Best Practices
IHS Head Start Oral Health ToolKit