Dental sealants prevent cavities, but many poor kids don't get them

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Dental sealants are an effective and inexpensive way to prevent kids from getting cavities, but many low-income kids aren't getting them, the Centers for Disease Control says in a report released Tuesday.

To close this gap, the CDC recommends that state and local officials develop school-based programs to provide dental sealants to poor kids and those who live in rural areas. The agency provides 21 state public health departments with funding to implement such programs. California is among the 29 states that don't receive this money, but Los Angeles Unified School District officials say they do offer dental sealants as part of their dental care program.

Dental sealants are a thin coating painted onto children's teeth; they prevent 80 percent of cavities in the back teeth, where nine in 10 cavities occur, the CDC says.

"Dental sealants have been referred to as the dental immunization," says CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, who notes that untreated cavities can also cause problems with eating, speaking and learning.

Nationwide, about 43 percent of children ages 6 to 11 have a dental sealant, according to the CDC.

Low-income kids are 20 percent less likely to have sealants than higher-income kids, the agency finds. That disparity puts poor kids at a disadvantage: School age kids without sealants have almost three times more cavities than kids with sealants, it says.

Denti-Cal, the state's dental insurance program for the poor, covers the cost of sealants for kids under age 21. In the fiscal year that ended June 2015, at least 382,811 Denti-Cal enrollees ages 6 to 14, out of a total of 2,697,064 kids in Denti-Cal, received one or more dental sealants, according to Tony Cava, spokesman for the state Department of Health Care Services.

The California Dental Association supports the use of sealants for all Californians at risk of developing cavities, says spokeswoman Courtney Grant.

Frieden says school-based dental sealant programs are an extremely effective but underutilized solution. He says they also make financial sense, calling them "a best buy."

"A recent, rigorous review showed that school-based programs actually save money within two years and giving this to children at high risk of cavities actually reduces Medicaid spending," he says.

LA Unified has 14 different dental providers that go to 21 schools, according to Roberta Villanueva, nursing coordinator for district nursing services. Two of those providers operate mobile clinics that visit hundreds of schools, she says.

Through the district's dental program, students can access sealants and other dental preventive care, Villanueva says. Staff also provide students with dental education and connect kids with dental insurance.

The 14 dental providers offer this care at no cost to the school district. Some of the providers offer free or pro bono care; some bill students' insurance when possible, she says.