PRISCILLA Serrano did everything she could to keep her child’s teeth clean and healthy. She rubbed his gums twice a day with a finger brush when he was three months old. She brought him to the dentist before his first birthday. She weaned him off a bottle early, gave him healthy snacks, avoided juice, brushed his teeth twice a day and even flossed for him.
But despite her best efforts, Daniel still developed two cavities before his sixth birthday.
“I was kind of devastated. You work so hard to prevent any of this, and then you see your child in pain,” said Serrano of Long Beach. “I was in denial at first. I was like, ‘No, I did a good job.’ But I finally accepted.”
Children’s dental care takes on a sense of renewed urgency and the stakes couldn’t be higher in California, where the health of little teeth is sobering.
California ranks among the worst states when it comes to paediatric dental disease. A national survey from 2020-21 found that 14.8% of the state’s children ages one to 17 had decayed teeth or cavities in the past 12 months studied – ranking 47th out of 51 among all the states and the District of Columbia.
“We’re really pushing for prevention because we don’t want to go down the line of having cavities, oral pain, possible infection and spread of infection,” said Dr. Abrey Daniel, a dentist with the Oral Health Program at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “Sometimes parents may just do a quick brush and not even notice that cavities are forming.
”Nationwide, more of half of children develop cavities by the age of eight, usually because of poor nutrition, bad hygiene habits or a lack of dental care. Other factors include drinking water without fluoride, an inadequate saliva floor and genetics. Even a child with good dental habits can develop cavities.
As with so many health issues, children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are most at-risk. The California Department of Public Health’s 2018-19 Smile Survey of third graders found that children from communities of colour and Spanish-speaking households are more likely to experience tooth decay. Latino children had the highest rates, with 72% having experienced some sort of tooth decay, compared to 40% of white children. Black children had the highest rate of untreated decay at 26% – almost twice the rate of white children.
Throughout the state, many low-income children have limited access to dental care, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fluoridated tap water, said Dr. Ryan Huang, the dental director at the South Central Family Health Center. Less than 60% of the population across California receives fluoridated water, according to the CDC.
Brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste is also crucial, yet many California children aren’t meeting that threshold, said Huang. Some families can’t afford to buy toothpaste or toothbrushes, and others don’t know the basics of dental hygiene. “There’s a lack of proper education not just with the children, but with the parents too,” said Huang.