PD Editorial: Sonoma County's growing dental crisis

  • Lucky Singh, 3 1/2, gets dental xrays as part of the free dental services---exams, x-rays, cleanings and treatments---at St. HJoseph Health Care System's dental clinic on Lombardi Court in Santa Rosa Friday, Feb. 5.

When 5-year-old Julie arrived at St. Joseph's Dental Clinic in Santa Rosa last year, her pain was visible. As Dr. Cheryl Willett, a pediatric dentist and director of the clinic, tells it, the swelling was so severe it was beginning to close her eye.

Julie (not her real name) was taken to the hospital where she spent five days being treated for multiple dental infections. In the end, 12 of her 20 baby teeth were extracted — all due to infection.

Unfortunately, clinic workers see severe cases like this once a month, sometimes weekly.

"If I asked you, &‘What is the number one childhood disease affecting U.S. children,' you might say asthma, obesity or even the common cold," Willett recently asked an audience at the Friedman Center in Santa Rosa. "But it's actually dental decay, and it's completely preventable."

Preventable, but pervasive nonetheless. Here are a few facts concerning this quiet crisis in Sonoma County, particularly among children:

<BL@199,12,11,10>A 2009 survey showed that 52 percent of Sonoma County third-graders had a history of dental decay, exceeding the state average.

<BL@199,12,11,10>The same study found that low-income kindergartners and third-graders had more than twice the level of untreated decay (21 percent versus 9 percent) as more affluent children. Nearly 7 percent of the children were found to be in need of "urgent" care.

<BL@199,12,11,10>There are now only 15 dentists who will accept Denti-Cal payments to treat low-income county residents, and six of them work at St. Joseph. <NO1>Overall, the county ranks in the bottom third — 44th out of 58 counties — in terms of dental health for kids.


The problem is taking a toll on family pockets as well as in lost school time. More than 500,000 California children missed at least one day of school last year because of dental issues, costing school districts $29.7 million in revenue.

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