Tooth decay affects fewer kids

A program designed to identify and treat children who have dental trouble has been successful, but still has a way to go, according to leaders in the San Luis Obispo County Oral Health Coalition.

The coalition has been crunching some numbers that show progress, said Susan Hughes, executive director of First 5, an organization dedicated to children up to age 5.

In January of 2009, for example, 45 percent of 5-year-olds from low-income families in the North County who were screened for dental problems had untreated decay.

In January of this year, that was down to 14 percent, out of 846 children screened in eight North County schools.

The statistics were included in a report to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors in preparation for an oral health summit in February.

A grant from the California Endowment funds the program. The endowment is a private health foundation created after the conversion of Blue Cross of California to a for-profit company.

County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein wrote in the report to supervisors that the coalition has “made significant gains in improving children’s oral health.”

The dental health of low-income children has traditionally gone underreported, unnoticed and untreated, officials say. There are a variety of reasons, Hughes said.

For one thing, these children often do not have insurance. For another, parents sometimes think they don’t have to take their younger children to a dentist.

Now, Hughes said, “it certainly has gotten on the radar screen.”

The coalition is moving forward aggressively, and two weeks ago hired its first program manager.