Dental News

Children miss almost three weeks of school annually from dental problems

2/8/2001  Children’s oral health campaign links oral health to overall health and school performance

PRNewswire — Seattle’s Whittier Elementary School is the site for the first major push from a coalition of child health advocates who hope to make in-school dental screenings the rule, not the exception, throughout Washington state. Low- and moderate-income children miss an average of 13 days of school each year due to dental problems, according to U.S. General Accounting Office data cited by the U.W.’s Washington Kids Count project.* One in six Washington children (17 percent) fall into that income level.

“Untreated tooth decay hurts in the mouth and it hurts school achievement,” said Dr. Richard Brandon, project director of Washington Kids Count. “It can lead to inadequate nutrition and speech problems, and distract children from concentrating on schoolwork. It’s shameful that we have the technology to prevent most dental disease if we reach all children when they are young, but we haven’t made the commitment.”

Dental infection is the most prevalent chronic childhood disease, affecting half of all first-graders and 80 percent of 17-year-olds. Oral disease keeps kids out of school and later, out of work. One in seven low-income children in Washington have unmet dental needs — a rate almost 50 percent higher than the national average. Forty percent of Washington employees lack dental insurance.

“Children missing this much school due to a preventable, treatable problem is just unacceptable,” said Dr. Terry Bergeson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “If children are sitting in school in pain, they cannot concentrate on schoolwork or anything else. Oral health is an important part of overall health, and we need our kids healthy so they come into the classroom ready to learn.”

Child health should be a prerequisite to education, according to Seattle School Board President Don Nielsen. “For years schools have been the place where we level the playing field to get all kids off to a good start,” he explained. “We require immunizations as a prerequisite to school attendance to protect the public health. We screen for eyesight and hearing problems. It’s time we brought children’s oral health into the classroom too, and made sure dental disease is not allowed to derail learning. Oral health is the single largest health issue affecting our young people. It’s time we developed awareness and a public focus on this treatable, solvable problem.” Although dental screenings and sealant clinics are conducted at some Washington schools, there is no mandated formal program to ensure that all children receive this important preventive care.

The WATCH YOUR MOUTH children’s oral health campaign was launched last month by a coalition of Washington health, labor, business and children’s groups to raise awareness of children’s unmet dental needs and to develop a policy agenda to improve oral health in our state. The campaign is the first of its kind in the nation, and was organized in response to the first-ever Surgeon’s General’s report on the topic, calling on states to do a better job in this neglected area of health care and health policy. A broad array of groups have formed the Citizen’s Watch for Children’s Oral Health to promote public policies to prevent dental disease, assure that all children have access to dental care, and to improve the supply of oral health professionals.

The group’s complete list of public policy goals is available on the campaign website,

Key senators on the senate Health and Long-term Care Committee have recently introduced bills to improve children’s oral health.

Founding coalition members of the WATCH YOUR MOUTH campaign include: Association of Washington Business, Washington State Labor Council, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Service Employees International Union Local 925, The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, The Alliance for Education, the Washington State and Seattle-King County Departments of Health, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists, Healthy Mothers/ Healthy Babies of Washington, Washington Coalition of Community and Migrant Health Centers, the University of Washington School of Dentistry, Community Health Plan of Washington, Head Start Association and the Cross Cultural Health Program.

Supported by grants from Washington Dental Service, the state’s largest provider of dental benefits and member of the Delta Dental Plan Association, and the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, the campaign is being watched by national groups such as the National Governors’ Association and the National Association of Child Advocates as a model for a future national campaign.

The Surgeon General’s full report on oral health is posted at The WATCH YOUR MOUTH campaign is enlisting support from citizens and civic groups.


*National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, as cited by U.S. General Accounting Offices, Oral Health: Dental Disease is a Chronic Problem Among Low-income Populations, HEHS-00-72. April 2000.

SOURCE: Washington Kids Count