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Doctors, officials seek fix for state's oral health woes

When Beverly Walter travels across West Virginia, she hears a lot of opinions about who's to blame for the state's poor oral health.

"The parents blamed the dentists," said Walter, vice president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. "The dentists blamed the parents. The bucked stopped nowhere."

On Friday, about 60 people - dentists, hygienists, public health officials and nonprofit leaders - gathered at the Governor's Mansion to map out strategies for improving oral health in West Virginia. First lady Gayle Manchin hosted the summit.

Among the disturbing statistics:

s There's been a 15 percent increase in cavities for West Virginia children ages 2 to 5 in recent years.

s Twenty-five percent of low-income children will not have seen a dentist by kindergarten.

s Only one of every five West Virginia children who receive Medicaid visit a dentist each year.

s Twenty-eight percent of West Virginia children have untreated tooth decay.

s West Virginia high school students rank third in the nation in smokeless tobacco use.

Walter said there have been successful programs in some West Virginia counties to tackle dental health problems, but no statewide push until now.

"We know what the best practices are. We know the issues," said Walter, whose foundation recently distributed than $1 million for oral health programs in West Virginia. "We just haven't taken this statewide to scale."

Dentists and other public health officials stressed that the state must focus on preventing cavities in young children who should see a dentist as early as their first birthday.

"Tooth decay is the most common childhood disease we see today," said Dr. Elliot Shulman, a professor of pediatric dentistry at West Virginia University.

Also Friday, Richard Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Dental Association, said his group would recommend changes to state law that would allow dental hygienists to perform some treatments without a dentist being present. Under existing law, hygienists can't work without a dentist in the office.

Stevens will bring the proposal to state legislators during their upcoming session in January.

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869. Eyre's work is being supported by a fellowship from the Kaiser Family Foundation.


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