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Study of oral health on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Shows rampant dental disease — 90 percent suffer tooth decay

Kathy Reincke
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Kar@wkkf.org, 269-969-2079

Giovanna Frank-Vitale
Burness Communications
gfrankvitale@burnesscommunications.com, 301-652-1558

PORTLAND, Ore.- Forty percent of children and nearly 60 percent of adults on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota suffer from moderate to urgent dental needs, including infections and other problems that could be life-threatening, according to a study released today at the 68th annual National Congress of American Indians conference being held in Portland.

The study, the first in 12 years on the state of oral health at this remote reservation, paints a disturbing picture of unchecked decay, gum disease and other serious dental problems that can lead to lower performance in school, infections and even death.  The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funded An Assessment of Oral Health on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which showed that 90 percent of participants showed signs of active decay, a rate three times that typically found in the United States.

“Many of the Pine Ridge residents suffer daily from wrenching dental pain yet they face huge barriers to getting routine care,” said lead author Terry Batliner, DDS of the Colorado School of Public Health and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. “A severe shortage of dentists willing to practice in isolated areas has left many Americans, including American Indians, with ongoing dental problems that threaten their overall health.”

The Indian Health Service, a federal agency that provides health and dental care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, conducted a limited survey of dental needs on this reservation back in 1999. To offer a more comprehensive view of the oral health problems in Pine Ridge today, the study team traveled to twenty communities on the reservation and recruited 292 adults and children for the study.

They gave each participant a dental exam, identified any decay or other problems and then offered recommendations for treatment. The study showed that residents at Pine Ridge had significantly higher numbers of decayed teeth and lower numbers of treated or filled teeth than reported by the 1999 Indian Health Service study.

The team discovered that 84 percent of children in the study and 97 percent of adults had ongoing decay, a problem that can lead to loss of permanent teeth.

Other key findings of the evaluation showed that:

  • Ninety two adults or 68 percent of the adult participants had evidence of gum disease and 16 percent showed signs of an advanced problem. Gum disease can lead to a loss of teeth and can put people at risk for other serious health problems like heart disease.
  • One child and five adults were found to have signs of a precancerous condition of the mouth. If left untreated, such a condition can progress to full-fledged cancer.
  • The high prevalence of decay and gum disease suggests that many participants had chronic pain that could interfere with daily activities.
  • About half the adults in the study had missing teeth and two had no teeth at all.

“All Americans, including those living in Pine Ridge, should have access to affordable dental care,” said Sterling K. Speirn, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “It is time to expand the reach of dentists by employing a new type of dental practitioner to provide routine care.  This approach has worked extremely well in Alaska, where dental therapists are effectively delivering dental care to people living in isolated villages. In fact, since the program got underway in 2005, dental therapists have been able to reach 35,000 people who didn’t have access to care before. ”

Close to 50 million Americans live in dental health shortage areas–places without enough dentists to meet the demand for routine oral health care. However, poverty and extreme conditions make the access problem much worse for residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Batliner said. Just ten dentists working in three locations must provide care for 30,000 people living in an area roughly the size of Connecticut. As a result, many people must wait for months just to get an appointment and some children in the study had never seen a dentist before.

In winter, the weather can make it impossible for residents of remote locations to travel. Even in the summer, they must travel miles along rutted roads just to get to the nearest dental clinic. And even if they manage to get to the clinic, overbooked staff might tell them to come back another day, Batliner points out.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has a long history of supporting efforts to improve access to oral health care for those who go without, is currently working with five states – Ohio, Kansas, New Mexico, Washington and Vermont — to consider dental therapists as part of an overall approach to expand care to vulnerable children and families.

More than a dozen other states are considering midlevel dental practitioners as a way to expand access, including California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and others.  Alaska and Minnesota already allow dental therapists to practice.

Other approaches identified by the authors include allowing licensed hygienists to serve as dental therapists in federally designated shortage areas. The authors also said that the tribe could take federal dollars now used to provide dental care on the reservation and use the money to create their own oral health care system.

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