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State makes strides to improve kids' oral health

Aug. 09, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

West Virginians rightly bristle at the various stereotypes thrown their way, as they should.

The images that too often are brought up in the late-night talk shows are not indicative of a vast majority of the state's people. But in some cases, there is a kernel of truth that led to the stereotype in the first place.

One that comes to mind is the dental health of the state's residents. There's no denying that older generations of West Virginians do have issues. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2008 more than a third of residents over 65 years old had suffered complete tooth loss. The CDC also reported that more than two-fifths of third-graders had either treated or untreated tooth decay in 2008, while a sixth of third-graders had untreated tooth decay.

Those are not numbers to brag about.

But things are changing, and the Mountain State has taken significant strides in recent years to turn around this situation.

The latest example is the introduction this year in the state's schools a new program focusing on oral health. Registered public health dental hygienists employed through Marshall University will serve as regional oral health coordinators. They are to provide oral health education training, promote good oral hygiene and help to expand school-based dental sealant and fluoride projects, which are considered essential to improving children's dental health.

At the least, the education component should foster a greater awareness among students and their parents about a good dental care regimen, including having the children be seen by a dentist twice a year. Beyond that, there are hopes the regional specialists will find resources for families who do not have dental insurance or the ability to pay upfront dental costs.

The introduction of the oral health program in the schools follows other steps in recent years. First, was coming up with an oral health plan for the state and beginning to implement strategies. For example, between 2010 and 2011, West Virginia went from having no reported sealant programs in high-risk schools to having somewhere between 25 and 49 percent, according to the 2011 Pew Report Card on states' dental health. According to the Marshall University School-Community Partnership Program report, in the school year 2010, 30 percent of the state's high-risk schools had a sealant program. Another factor was improvements in Medicaid payment rates to dentists.

Just some of those initial, important steps improved the state's Pew Report Card grade from "F" to a "C" in the 2011 assessment. Since that time, more progress has been made, according to the West Virginia Kids Count organization. In early 2012, West Virginia Medicaid joined the State's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in reimbursing primary care physicians for applying fluoride varnish and referring children to a dental home. And in the 2012 legislative session, legislation was passed allowing hygienists to place sealants without a prior dentist's exam.

Add up all of these efforts, and the state is preparing younger generations to firmly establish one stereotype as a myth.

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