New data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show’s children’s oral health has improved across the nation, but race-based gaps in the prevalence of dental cavities and their treatment persist.
According to the CDC data, part of its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, exactly half of the kids in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 19 had dental cavities during the agency’s 2011-12 survey period. That dropped to 43.1 percent by 2015-16, an overall reduction of nearly 14 percent.
The prevalence of untreated dental cavities also declined during this time, from 16.1 to 13 percent. State-specific data was not included in the report.
Policy experts and advocates point to a variety of reasons for the drop. One of the most significant drivers is the mandate that pediatric dental insurance is one of the essential health benefits that needs to be covered by insurers.
In California, state health care officials obtained a waiver from the federal government in 2015 that includes funding for the Dental Transformation Initiative, which focuses on improving dental care and prevention for low-income children.
“It is very relevant to what this is tracking,” said Anthony Wright, executive director for the Sacramento-based advocacy organization Health Access California. Dentists who accept children enrolled in the state’s low-income health program, called Medi-Cal, also receive higher payments compared to what they’re paid to treat adult enrollees.
Corina Ramirez, the pediatric clinic director for Western Dental, the state’s largest chain of dental clinics, also noted that most children in the state now undergo an oral health assessment prior to enrollment in kindergarten, a process that she said often directs the children to appropriate dental care.
Wright and Ramirez noted that a robust economy also likely played a role as well, meaning more people could afford insurance or pay out of pocket for dental care.
However, the CDC data indicated that there were still some barriers to obtaining care and treatment. Fifty-two percent of Latino youth had dental cavities—9 percentage points above the nationwide total and 25 percent higher than white children. Among African-American youth, 17.1 percent had untreated dental cavities—about 30 percent higher than the national rate.
Kiran Savage-Sangwan, health integration policy director for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, noted that only about half of the children enrolled in the Medi-Cal program have an annual dental checkup each year. The program predominantly serves Latino and African-American children, she added.
Children also face other barriers to dental care, according to Savage-Sangwan. They include language and cultural barriers, particularly if parents do not speak English.
“And if you’re living in poverty and facing food insecurity, you may have access to (higher carbohydrate and sugar) foods that tend to lead to cavaties,” she said.
The safety of a community’s water supply can also impact dental health, Savage-Sangwan said.
“If you’re living in a community where you have to worry about the safety of their drinking water, they may not be drinking the tap water, and miss out on the fluoride,” she said.