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Each year in the United States, 500 million dental visits occur. Despite that large number, however, many U.S. children and adults do not have access to dental care and, therefore, receive none. Tooth decay is one of the most common infectious diseases among U.S. children.
This preventable health problem begins early: nearly a fifth of 2- to 4-year-olds, more than half of 8-year-olds, and more than three-fourths of 17-year-olds already have tooth decay. Among low-income children, almost half of cavities are untreated, and may cause pain, dysfunction, poor appearance, and underweight—problems that greatly reduce a child’s capacity to succeed.
Adults also have serious oral health problems. Almost three of every 10 adults older than 65 years have lost all of their teeth because of cavities or gum disease. Each year, about 30,000 cases of mouth and throat cancers are diagnosed, and more than 8,000 people die of these diseases.
Nearly $68 billion is spent on dental services each year. More than 108 million Americans do not have dental insurance. For each child without medical insurance, 2.6 are without dental insurance; for each adult without medical insurance, three are without dental insurance.
Proven preventive measures (e.g., water fluoridation, dental sealants, smoking prevention programs) can reduce oral and dental diseases. However, these measures are often unavailable to those who need them most.
Community water fluoridation prevents cavities and saves money, both for families and the health care system. In fact, for large communities of more than 20,000 people where it costs about 50¢ per person to fluoridate the water, every $1 invested in this preventive measure yields $38 savings in dental treatment costs.
One proven strategy for reaching children at high risk for dental disease is through school programs that are linked with dental care professionals in the community. In 2001, funded programs through the state education agencies in various states developed and implemented models for improving access to oral health education, prevention, and treatment services for school-aged children who are at high risk for oral disease. Oral health is making headway as an important and valued part of healthy living for children and adults.