RedEye

Kids deserve chance at healthy smiles

There's hardly anything more crushing for a 16-year-old girl than taking a bite out of a hamburger only to see her front tooth fall out on to her plate, and the stunned face of the 16-year-old boy sitting across from her.

I should know. I was the girl.

For much of high school I wore a retainer with two teeth on it to cover up the gaping holes in my smile because my lateral incisors (the two teeth on either side of my two front teeth) never grew in.

The retainer was a temporary solution until something more permanent could be done. It often broke, and after the hamburger incident I learned to keep Super Glue in my backpack.

I make this confession because I want more people to understand with absolute certainty the seriousness of kids and teens with dental problems and how Florida is doing far too little about it.

I think about all the embarrassing times one or both of my teeth fell out, and the pain and surgeries required for the smile I have today, and consider myself lucky. I have a good dentist and insurance.

When I look at reports such as the Pew Center's latest analysis of dental health for kids that gave Florida a "D" for its lack of preventive dental care, I don't just see the horrifying statistics.

I see thousands of little faces suffering in silence, smiling only through closed lips to avoid attention on teeth that don't look right, or learning to chew on just one side to avoid pain.

Or worse.

The most appalling case is that of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who died of a toothache in 2007.

An infection from a tooth abscess spread to his brain. His mom, who didn't have insurance, took him to the emergency room for treatment that came too late.

It's possible that if Deamonte's tooth had been pulled earlier, a procedure costing less than $100, his life could have been saved.

That's a worst-case scenario, but I wonder how many kids in Florida are experiencing more-severe health consequences as the result of a toothache.

The numbers show there could be quite a few. In 2010, more than 800 kids ages 10 to 19 showed up in Central Florida emergency rooms because of dental problems.

As the Pew report pointed out, many of those ER visits could be avoided with simple low-cost treatments such as dental sealants applied to the molars of second- and sixth-graders to help prevent decay.

But in addition to health and exorbitant costs, dental care is so important for another reason.

How many times have you seen people with crooked, stained or missing teeth and made all kinds of assumptions about them?

They must be uneducated. They don't take care of themselves. They're unprofessional.

Plenty of studies link the appearance of job candidates' teeth to how well they do in the interview process.

Few people stop to consider that an adult's teeth are likely the result of choices made for them as a child because their parents couldn't afford a dentist and didn't encourage good hygiene or because of congenital conditions — such as mine — that cause abnormalities.

That's even more reason for Florida to take this problem seriously and do everything it can to improve access to decay-preventing dental sealants and fluoride treatments as well as routine screenings.

When studies such as Pew's make headlines I see a lot more than the scary numbers. I see the pain that kids without proper dental care will eventually grow up to experience as adults because I've had a taste of that myself.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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