Cook County's poor children have a corner on cavities

Cook County's poor children have a corner on cavities

There's nothing worse than a toothache, many would say. But many of Cook County's smallest residents may be suffering from rotting teeth, abscesses and mammoth cavities, especially those who are poor. A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says that just 25 percent of the nation's children suffer from 80 percent of the nation's tooth decay.

They're not just lacking a healthy smile. Poor dental health has been linked to diabetes, osteoporosis, heart and lung conditions, and problem pregnancies. Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy, died in 2007 when bacteria from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain. And officials in Cook County say good dental care for residents with lower incomes is becoming more difficult to find.

Oral infection is actually the number one chronic disease for children--five times higher than asthma. And tooth decay is on the rise among young children, says the National Center on Health Statistics, up 4 percent over the last 20 years. But there's a big gap when you look at race and poverty. Three times as many poor children had untreated dental disease, compared with more affluent children. While only 19 percent of white children had cavities in their permanent teeth, 31 percent of Mexican-American children did. A California study showed that 72 percent of poor children had a history of cavities.

About 9 percent of white children had experienced a toothache in the last year, according to a 2010 study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. But 12.6 percent of Hispanic children, 13 percent of multiracial children and around 16 percent of black children had had one.

Although Illinois got a "B" grade from the Pew Research Center on children's dental care, it's becoming harder for low-income families in Cook County to find a dentist they can afford. In 2005, the county operated eight public health dental clinics. Now, it only has four. Getting an appointment at one of these clinics isn't easy either--a three-month wait for routine care and up to a year for specialty care, according to a county audit. The city has closed all its clinics. The University of Illinois at Chicago and Stroger Hospital operate dental clinics on a sliding scale. The UIC clinic treats as many as 30 children as emergency patients every day. Advocates say there's just not enough care for those who need it.

“Right now, [Cook County] is in a crisis state,” Dr. Cheryl Watson-Lowry of the Chicago Dental Society told WBBM.

Although many poor children are covered by Medicaid, dentists are reluctant to accept Medicaid patients because the reimbursement rates are so low--not enough to cover the cost of care, some Chicago dentists say. More than half of children on Medicaid in Illinois didn't go to the dentist in 2009, according to Pew.

Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri urged the county to spend more money on children's dental care earlier this year. But with tight budgets and looming deficits, cavities may be the last thing on the minds of city and county officials. And yet thousands of local children will start school again in just a few months, many too distracted by their aching mouth to pick up on anything they should be learning.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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