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Alaska’s dental therapists combat widespread oral disease, bringing preventive dental care to children and families

Statement from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control finds that oral health disease in Alaska Native children is rampant. As the Institute of Medicine reported in June, oral disease is at epidemic proportions across the U.S., particularly among children. Sadly, most of this disease is completely preventable – if you have access to dental care.

Since 2006, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has partnered with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to address oral health issues. The leaders of Alaska Native Villages recognized that traditional efforts were unsuccessful, and agreed that training a mid-level dental practitioner called a dental therapist to provide care in remote villages could be a solution.

Since then, dental therapists, working as part of a dentist-led team, have provided dental care to Alaska Natives in their villages, when and where they need it. Now more than 35,000 Alaska Natives have access to dental care through dental therapists.

In its survey of children living in five of 52 remote Alaska villages, the CDC determined that heavy consumption of soda pop and lack of fluoridation in the water supply were major contributing factors to tooth decay. Prevention services – which dental therapists are trained to provide – are sorely needed.

Oral health and access problems are not unique to Alaska, and innovative solutions to improving access to dental care should not be limited to Alaska. Today, more than a dozen states are exploring similar options. With an estimated 10,000 new dentists needed to fill the current gap in care, and millions more children set to become eligible for dental coverage under Medicaid in 2014, we must explore evidence-based models that show promise.

For children, especially children of color and those living in poverty, access to oral health care can still mean life or death. We can and must do better. Our children and future are depending on it.

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