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Editorial: School dental sealant programs can make significant difference

Jan. 13, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

During the past 20 years, dental sealants have played an important role in reducing tooth decay among children and teens.

But a new survey shows that many states have been slow to adopt the school-based sealant programs that have great potential to improve the public's oral health and save taxpayers a lot of money.

For those not familiar with the process, dentists have found that applying a thin plastic coating to the chewing surface of certain teeth can reduce decay by about 60 percent. Typically, the sealants are applied to a child's molars, which are more susceptible to cavities, once their permanent teeth have come in. They can be effective for five years or more, and the most recent national survey shows that about half of teens aged 13-15 have received sealants on a permanent tooth.

But not surprisingly, children from lower-income households are much less likely to have sealants -- or other types of preventative dental care, for that matter. Unfortunately, treating the dental problems that likely come later often falls to publicly supported health-care programs.

Advocates argue it makes more sense to have sealant programs in schools, especially those schools with a high-risk population. While there are costs involved, studies show the sealants are much cheaper than fillings and other dental procedures.

"Children's health isn't the only thing that suffers when states don't invest in sealant programs," said Shelly Gehshan, director of the Pew Children's Dental Campaign, which recently studied the issue. "States that miss this opportunity to prevent decay are saddling taxpayers with higher costs down the road through Medicaid or other programs."

West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky all have at least some sealant programs in schools. According to the Pew survey, Ohio's has the most, reaching more than half of the "high-needs" schools. West Virginia's programs reach less than half of its high-needs schools and Kentucky less than a fourth.

One obstacle to expanding these programs are requirements that a dentist examine a child before a dental hygienist applies the sealants. That makes the process more costly, and the researchers argue that step is unnecessary. According to the survey, that is less of a problem in West Virginia, but a significant issue in Kentucky.

Especially in our region, with its history of poor oral health, it makes sense to expand these programs and help improve children's health and limit future health-care costs.

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