Lua Pritchard. Courtesy photo.

Every child deserves a healthy start in life, and an opportunity to grow into a productive adult. Oral health is an essential part of that continuum. At every age, oral health is crucial to overall health.

I am a Samoan native with 30 beautiful grandchildren to love and enjoy. Growing up in Washington my grandchildren are constantly faced with the temptation of artificial sugary foods and drinks. This is one reason so many in our native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities suffer from poor oral health. Yet, cavities and gum disease are preventable. We must speak out and encourage parents and grandparents to learn more about how to prevent oral disease and practice good oral health behaviors at home.

We need be role models for our children. Avoiding sugary drinks, eating healthy foods and drinking fluoridated tap water to strengthen teeth should be a norm. I care deeply about the oral and overall health of my grandchildren, and all children in our community. We need to start them on a good path in life by ensuring they have good oral health, and that’s why I have become an oral health advocate.

Dental disease (also known as cavities or tooth decay) is most common childhood ailment, five times more common than asthma. Pain from dental problems makes it difficult for children to learn, sleep and eat healthy foods. Kids with oral disease are absent from school more often, and many are embarrassed to smile and participate in class.

There is also a proven link between oral disease and heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and pregnancy complications. Getting a job, performing well at work and eating healthy foods are much more difficult for people in pain from oral disease. And far too often, people in severe pain from dental problems become dependent on painkillers, including opioids.

Surveys of Washington residents show that oral health problems tend to be highest in communities of color and in low-income communities. For example, the most recent Smile Survey for King County, conducted by the Washington Department of Health, showed that 40 percent of Asian and 74 percent of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander elementary school children in King County had tooth decay, compared to 31 percent of Caucasian elementary school children.

These health disparities are not acceptable. More need to be done to that every child has an opportunity for good oral health. The good news is that cavities are virtually 100 percent preventable.

Oral disease prevention should begin during pregnancy. Any oral health problems should be treated before giving birth. The germ that cause cavities can be spread from mother to child through sharing utensils and food or even kissing.

Parents need to pay attention to their babies’ oral health when baby teeth emerge at about six months, and make sure their children receive a first oral health screening by a doctor or dentist by age one.

The infectious germs that cause cavities feed on sweet and high-carbohydrate foods and drinks, making acid that can attack teeth for 20 minutes or more, eating away tooth enamel. If young children are put to bed with a bottle, it should be filled with water rather than juice, milk or formula. Parents should also make sure children’s snacks are healthy and limited to once or twice a day so teeth aren’t exposed to a constant acid attack.

Treatments like fluoride varnish on young children’s teeth are effective in averting cavities. Fluoride toothpaste and fluoridated water are also proven tools to prevent cavities because they strengthen teeth. Brushing twice a day, flossing daily, and regular dental checkup should become an essential part of everyone’s health regimen.

Good oral health will benefit your appearance, health and productivity, and save money. Every cavity prevented saves an estimated $2,000 over a lifetime.

For more tips on how to stay healthy and enjoy a lifetime of good oral health, go to TheMightyMouth.org.

In addition, we should all insist that policymakers at the local and state level protect and expand programs such as Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD) and Apple Health to ensure that everyone has access to the dental care needed to stay healthy. To improve oral health, everyone should have access to fluoridated water. Water fluoridation is supported by experts all across the county. It is the most equitable approach to prevent cavities for everyone, without regard to race, ethnicity, age or income. We have a community responsibility to ensure all people have the supports they need for good oral health.

Lua Pritchard is Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Cultural Center.

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