National Children’s Dental Health Month ended in February, but the focus on children’s oral health must remain a priority throughout the year. Many of Connecticut’s children are suffering from poor oral health, and the state is falling behind in its goals to meet national and state oral health improvement plans.

Oral health concerns are even more prevalent and severe among racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income households.

Recent data presented in the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s report, Every Smile Counts: The Oral Health Connecticut’s Children, with assistance from Connecticut Oral Health Initiative, Inc., highlights many of the areas Connecticut is failing. However, it also outlines opportunities and a path for significant improvement that is achievable through a partnership of providers, caregivers, and policymakers.

One out of every three (34%) children, according to the report, are currently being affected by tooth decay, which is the most common chronic infectious disease in children, despite being almost entirely preventable. The high rate of dental decay and cavities in Connecticut’s children is likely resulting in many suffering from agonizing pain and can negatively impact long-term oral health into adulthood. Dental decay, though, does not just stop in the mouth. An infection that starts in the mouth can influence other chronic diseases and has even led to death, as it did to 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, from Maryland, who died in 2007 as a result of an untreated dental infection.

Poor oral health has been shown to decrease children’s social, nutritional, and educational development. Children with infected and painful teeth miss more school days compared to children with healthy teeth, disrupting their educational and social experiences and increasing costs for school districts. There is also a cost to children’s mental health that can lead to shyness, unhappiness, feelings of worthlessness, avoiding smiling, and reduced friendliness.

Connecticut has an opportunity to make significant improvements by implementing targeted policies for populations that disproportionately experience dental decay. It starts with a recommendation from the American Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and the Connecticut Department of Public Health (CT DPH) for all families to establish a Dental Home within six months of the eruption of the first tooth and not later than 12 months of age. The purpose of early visits to the dentist is to conduct a caries risk assessment and provide parental education for the prevention of early childhood caries. Every family must establish this relationship with their dental provider like they currently do with a child’s pediatrician.

Furthermore, Connecticut must develop a better and more aggressive dental sealant program. Sealants are plastic coatings placed on top of teeth to help prevent dental decay. They are relativity relatively easy to apply, inexpensive, and usually covered by insurance. The report showed that only 28% of third-grade children have sealants which has declined over the last ten years, while race-based and ethnicity-based disparities have increased.

Other public health strategies should be pursued to include increasing oral health literacy and guidance for parents and caregivers to ensure proper oral hygiene starts right at home, further integrating oral health with medical health to establish a two-way partnership verse the current siloed system, and promoting the consumption of fluoride water over sugary drinks. Connecticut policymakers should consider increasing the capacity and funding of community health centers, improving access to HUSKY and private insurance programs, and providing additional resources to expand school-based dental health services.

The next Every Smile Counts report will be conducted in five years. If Connecticut does not start implementing the many proven methods for improving children’s oral health at a faster rate, the numbers will not only look worse, but a generation of children will continue to suffer physically, emotionally, and socially because of a disease that could have been prevented.

Let’s ensure every child in Connecticut has a smile they can count on.

T.J. Clarke II is the Executive Director of Connecticut Oral Health Initiative, Inc.