Thousands of B.C. children undergo major surgery that could be prevented. A new study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information must have stunned public-health experts. It appears that every year, thousands of preschool children have decayed baby teeth surgically reconstructed or removed.
Rural areas are harder hit than urban centres, and low-income families in particular are highly vulnerable.
Some of the worst incidence rates occur in our own backyard. Every year, 5,000 preschool children in B.C. undergo major dental operations. Entire operating theatres are being set aside on a weekly basis to handle the influx.
Parts of Vancouver Island are particularly hard hit. In the area around Nanaimo, the number of kids with rotten teeth may be approaching Third World levels.
And these figures represent merely the tip of a much larger iceberg. The study dealt only with children treated in hospital. Many more have surgical extractions in dental clinics. From being rare some decades ago, dental surgery is now by far the most common operation among children.
The medical cause is straightforward. Dental caries is an infectious disease that can be transmitted on soothers, baby bottles, household utensils and the like. It is both preventable - with brushing and flossing - and easily treated if caught early.
So how did we arrive at this point? To an extent, the epidemic is fuelled by a misconception.
Some mothers feed their nursing toddlers fruit juice instead of milk, in the belief that juice is a healthier option. The practice is widespread in remote communities, where fresh milk can be in short supply.
But sugary drinks promote decay. Giving young children juice bottles to suck on almost guarantees infection.
However, the real problem is that many low-income parents lack the money to pay a dentist. As a result, their children suffer months of pain until surgery is the only option left.
It's true that families receiving income assistance do get help with dental bills. But the money rarely covers the full cost of treatment.
The federal government also provides support to aboriginal families, but here again, it's usually a case of too little, too late. In every sense, this is an epic policy disaster. Leave aside the fact that thousands of small children are put through the trauma of a major operation, with all the danger that entails.
From a purely financial perspective, the whole thing is utter madness. It costs about $30 million a year to give 5,000 kids dental surgery in B.C. Those costs are paid out of the public purse, because hospital treatment is covered by the Medical Services Plan. By skimping on preventive care, health ministries are merely bringing down on themselves a huge bill for emergency care.
This is one of those rare occasions when a public-health crisis could be solved by elementary measures.
We need a full-scale communications effort to explain that nursing children should not be given fruit juice in place of milk.
And the low-income assistance program should be changed so that preventive dental care is covered.
Parents never want to see their child in pain. But apparently the country's decision-makers are less troubled by the idea. That has to change, in a hurry.
This editorial first appeared in the Times Colonist " We want to hear from you.
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