Young children around the state are “brushing up” on dental health thanks to an oral health program delivered by the University of Arizona.
The First Smiles program – an initiative of First Things First, administered in four Arizona counties by Arizona Cooperative Extension in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – aims to improve the dental health of children from birth to 5 years old.
The program sends dental health professionals to public preschools, child-care centers and private homes with professional child-care providers to conduct dental screenings, apply fluoride varnishes and teach children and their care providers about the importance of good oral hygiene.
“The long-range objective is to lower the amount of untreated tooth decay by the time kids enter school,” said Joyce Flieger, a dental hygienist and director of the Cochise County First Smiles program.
Using instructional aids like the Mr. Tooth puppet and the book, “Those Icky Sticky Smelly Cavity-Causing but … Invisible Germs,” program facilitators try to get kids excited about caring for their teeth through brushing and flossing, eating a healthy diet and making regular visits to the dentist.
“We’re trying to make this a good, positive experience, so they actually want to go the dentist,” said Evelyn Whitmer, an area extension agent based in Cochise County.
Kids leave the program with a toothbrush, toothpaste and information sheets for mom and dad.
The UA started First Smiles in Cochise County three years ago. Since then, it has expanded to include Graham, Greenlee and Yuma counties and is expected eventually to be available in other Arizona counties.
Arizona is the third worst state in the nation for untreated tooth decay in third-grade children, Flieger said, adding that increased consumption of sodas and refined sugars has made the problem worse nationwide.
Statistics suggest that children in the U.S. miss 51 million hours of school per year because of oral health issues, Flieger said, and poor dental health can lead to other problems such as impaired speech development or low self-esteem.
“We need to intervene early to prevent that,” she said.
A child should visit the dentist for the first time when he or she is just a year old, Flieger said. To help prevent decay, she also recommends fluoride varnishes three to four times a year, and she applies fluoride to children’s teeth through the First Smiles program with parent permission.
While First Smiles offers free dental health screenings to children on site, Flieger stresses that those are no substitute for a complete exam at a dentist’s office.
And while visiting the dentist can be scary for kids, it’s often the parents who have more fear, Flieger said. She hopes children who go through the First Smiles program might actually urge parents to make an appointment.
“We’re trying to change attitudes about dentists, and we don’t want that fear to come up,” she said.
In addition to working with children and child-care providers, First Smiles also reaches out to dental health professionals who might not be used to working with very young patients, providing education.
This year alone, the Cochise County program screened 1,207 children and taught 9,302 children, parents and professionals. Many of those children come from low-income families with limited access to dental health care. Thousands more received screenings and education in Graham, Greenlee and Yuma counties.
Flieger said she hopes the program will reach even more children in the future.
“Our goal is to improve the oral health of these kids,” Flieger said, “and we’ll do whatever we can to do it.”