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Better oral health means better education

It’s good news that Jackson and Josephine counties rank in the top half of Oregon counties in the number of children who had access to dental care last year. And it’s even more reassuring that Jackson County ranked even better — 12th — in the number of children who received preventive dental services — which make dental emergencies and disease less likely.

Still, ranking 16th for overall access to dental care means 15 counties fared better. And 11 counties ranked higher in access to preventive care.

Educators say dental care is essential for students to be able to learn. Dental pain from tooth decay is tremendous distraction, and makes it hard to sleep. Lack of sleep compounds the problem.

Despite its reputation for high-quality medical care — when individuals can afford it — this country has historically treated dental care as separate and secondary to medical care. But dental health has a profound impact on overall well-being.

Writing in the online journal Stat, Harvard Dental School dean R. Bruce Donoff, who is both a dentist and a medical doctor, notes that inflammation in the gums and mouth can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the U.S. loses $6 billion in productivity every year because of dental issues, he writes, which fuel higher medical costs. Emergency room visits for dental pain also contribute to opioid addiction.

Many of those serious health effects appear later in life, but starting children on the road to good oral health is vital to warding off those complications in adulthood. And even children can suffer serious illness and even death from untreated dental infections. Donoff cites one case in which an infected tooth led to the death of a 12-year-old boy from a brain infection.

As of 2017, 130 million Americans, most of them adults, had no dental coverage. Medicare has no dental benefits, and Medicaid has few for adults, although Affordable Care Act policies do include dental coverage, and Medicaid covers dental care for children from low-income families.

Beyond dental care, however, it’s important to teach children good oral hygiene practices. House Bill 4127, introduced in the current legislative session, would require school districts to teach oral health as part of comprehensive health curriculum. Preventing tooth decay and other oral health issues will go a long way toward improving educational outcomes.

HB 4127 should pass, and a second measure to license mid-level practitioners to provide lower-cost preventive services, especially in rural areas, should win approval as well.