Childhood Dental Disease: Oregon's Hidden Epidemic
“I’ve told the team I used to work with in Haiti as a volunteer dentist that I need to stay here and take care of the children in my own backyard. The need here is just as great as anything I’ve seen in the developing countries where I’ve provided volunteer dentistry.”—Dr. Park McClung, Cottage Grove
Oregon has one of the country’s highest rates of childhood dental disease, which is the most common chronic disease affecting U.S. children. As Dr. Weston Heringer Jr. of The Dental Foundation of Oregon recently noted, “We have as much dental disease in Oregon as there is anywhere else in the world.”
The causes of this preventable epidemic include limited access to community water fluoridation, inadequate education, economic hardship and lack of dental insurance and dental care. If left untreated, dental disease can be devastating to children’s health, educational success, productivity, self-image and future potential.
Preventing tooth decay isn’t just good medical practice; it also makes good economic sense. The CDC estimates that every dollar spent annually on water fluoridation saves $38 in dental treatment costs. The cost of effective early intervention is negligible compared to the social and economic costs of widespread, untreated dental disease.
Dental pain caused by tooth decay is also one of the main reasons elementary age students miss school. These absences impact their academic achievement and path to success.
Furthermore, current medical research indicates that dental disease can play a significant role in many other medical conditions, including heart disease and diabetes. As statewide dental director Dr. Bruce Austin explains, “There's such a connection between decreasing oral inflammation and overall health. It greatly improves overall health."
The Role of OCF
OCF joined with other funders to establish the Oral Health Funders Collaborative in September 2011 and address the urgent statewide need for early intervention.
In November 2012, the OCF board made children's dental health a strategic priority for the Foundation. OCF focused on conducting a baseline assessment of childhood oral health, developing an inventory of statewide resources, and building relationships with key stakeholders.
In spring 2014, OCF launched its statewide children's dental health initiative. Through this five-year initiative, OCF and partners will work together to solve the systemic problems that prevent Oregon children from accessing timely, age-appropriate dental services, including cultural barriers, lack of insurance, and the shortage of providers in rural communities. The initiative has three primary aims:
- Educating and engaging OCF donors, volunteers, grantees and partners to raise awareness of this problem
- Funding community-based prevention and education services throughout Oregon
- Providing statewide leadership and advocacy on evidence-based prevention strategies, as well as infrastructure and workforce policies
Priorities include developing a strategic oral health plan for Oregon; training primary care providers on oral disease prevention; expanding school-based dental health promotion programs; supporting legislation that will improve oral health for all children in Oregon; and funding necessary research to strengthen the rationale for policy changes.
In June 2014, OCF, The Collins Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Meyer Memorial Trust, Northwest Health Foundation, and Providence Health & Services, joined together to increase access to education and prevention services by supporting school-based children’s dental health programs across the state. Please visit our Current Grants tab for more information about this effort.
More recently, in partnership with other funders, OCF, the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Oral Health Coalition sponsored the Strategic Plan for Oral Health in Oregon and a Progress Report was released in November 2016.
Dental disease among Oregon's children is preventable. Contribute to OCF's Children's Dental Health Initiative by visiting the Children's Dental Health Fund page. And join OCF in promoting education, prevention and dental treatment services for children throughout Oregon. By working at the community and statewide level, there are opportunities to change the trajectory of this disease. Funders and other organizations that would like to partner with OCF are encouraged to contact: