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In clinics and classrooms, College of Dentistry fights for better oral health for kids

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tooth fairy
In her role as tooth fairy, dentistry student Megan Dawson teaches St. Malachy kids about dental health at Healthy Smile Day Friday in the UIC pediatric dental clinic.

Photo: Troy Heinzeroth

An unhealthy smile could lead to an unhealthy body.

The human mouth is home to millions and millions of microorganisms; problems there can be warning signs for problems with overall health.

“Recent research has linked periodontal diseases with other chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and respiratory illnesses,” said Indru Punwani, professor and head of pediatric dentistry.

“The mouth is an entryway to a variety of infections; it should never be neglected.”

It’s important for dental care to start early — before a child’s first birthday, Punwani said.

But lack of access to dental care and bad experiences with care in the past often keep low-income families away from the dentist.

The College of Dentistry is working to improve dental access not only in its pediatric clinics, which treat nearly 100 children daily, but also in its extensive community-based education requirements for dental students.

Ninety-eight percent of the children who visit the college’s pediatric clinic come from low-income families on Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, making the clinic the largest provider of services to children on Medicaid in Illinois.

One-third of the children who come to the clinic have early childhood cavities, even though they are under the age of 5, and many of them are high-risk patients, Punwani said. About 30 of the 100 cases the clinic sees each day are emergencies.

“Every day we have long lines of children and their parents coming in for dental emergencies,” Punwani said.

“Many patients don’t visit a dentist regularly because of a lack of access, but other times parents with oral health problems have gone to emergency rooms and had a bad experience and are afraid of going back to the dentist.

“Therefore we’re performing a lot of extractions and other complex restorative procedures instead of preventive care.”

This can lead to serious, even life-threatening problems, Punwani added.

Last February, a 12-year-old Maryland boy died from what began as a toothache. By the time his aching tooth received medical attention, the bacteria from the abscess had spread to his brain, doctors said.

The college is training future dentists who are committed to working with underserved populations, stressing preventive care.

Throughout the first three semesters of their education at UIC, dental students visit local communities and community organizations and spend time in local elementary schools to provide oral health education to young children.

In their senior year, all students must complete a 60-day extramural rotation in community-based clinics.

“One of the goals of the College of Dentistry is to prepare an oral health care work force that is competent and committed to addressing the oral health needs of vulnerable and underserved populations and to play its part in eliminating health disparities,” said Caswell Evans, associate dean for prevention and public health sciences.

In 2004, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn proclaimed the second week in October as Healthy Smiles Week throughout Illinois.

UIC participates by providing free dental screenings and fluoride treatment to about 100 children from St. Malachy School on the West Side and El Valor Head Start Program on the South Side.

This year, Quinn inaugurated the Healthy Smiles Hero award, recognizing 24 Illinois dentists for their commitment to serving patients in underserved communities. Punwani was among the recipients.

“These dedicated dentists go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure people in rural and underserved communities across Illinois get the dental care they deserve,” Quinn said.

Below: Scott Goldman, a first-year resident in pediatric dentistry, gives a check-up to a young patient on Healthy Smiles Day Friday.

Photo: Troy Heinzeroth

scott goldman

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