Clinic helps kids combat cavities

Teeth: A free screening at an elementary school gives pupils, siblings and friends the chance to visit a dentist.

May 24, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Keswanna Edwards was beaming, every tiny tooth bared.

"I don't have any cavvies!" said the 5-year-old, "because I didn't eat a bunch of candy."

Keswanna's mother, Rosalind Wilson, had never taken the prekindergartner or her 2-year-old sister Keshanwa to the dentist. And although she steers her girls away from sweets, she still worried about their little teeth.

So Wilson was first in line last week when Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School paired up with United Concordia Cos. Inc. -- one of the largest dental insurers in the country -- to provide a free dental health clinic for the school's 218 pupils, their siblings and their friends.

Wilson was pleased with her daughters' reports -- no cavities for either girl. But not all of the more than 120 patients seen by volunteer dentists Arnold Weinberg and Stephen Mastella were quite as lucky.

"Hmm. Looks like you've got some little cavity bugs in there," Mastella said to third-grader Camerya McNeill as he peered in her mouth with a mirror on a handle. "This means you have to get those fixed."

Camerya, 8 -- a peanut butter cup- and lollipop-lover -- said her family had already set up an appointment for her.

That's not always the case with minority children, officials from the dental insurance group said, noting studies that show that less than one-third of African-American and Hispanic children visit the dentist during the year.

The problem is particularly acute in poor neighborhoods, said Monica White, a spokeswoman for United Concordia.

"Lower-income parents, they don't have access to as much care, and a lot of them don't have dental insurance," White said. "And some of them just won't take their kids, for whatever reason. Maybe they work two jobs and they just don't have time in their day."

According to the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, a policy center at the George Washington University, "children living in poverty suffer twice as much tooth decay as their more affluent peers, and their disease is more likely to be untreated."

At a school such as West Baltimore's Lockerman-Bundy, where 85 percent of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price meals -- a common indicator of poverty -- untreated tooth decay could be a reason why some children are distracted during lessons or perform poorly on classwork or tests.

"It's hard for them to concentrate when they're in pain," said Principal Cynthia Cunningham.

"We bring them down to the nurse and she does what she can, but she's not a dentist."

When United Concordia volunteers were looking for a Baltimore school to help, it was school nurse Stella Atikpoh -- with her concerns about children with toothaches and sore gums -- who encouraged them to come to Lockerman-Bundy.

"It's left to the parents to take the kids to the dentist, but they don't do it," said Atikpoh, the school's nurse of seven years. "They continue to come down to the health suite with the same problems. ... I try to tell them how to brush and to be easy with the soda and all those sweets."

If she had been able to attend Thursday's after-school dental clinic, Atikpoh would have been proud of the pupils.

Only a few cried when sitting across from the dentists. Most said ahhhh with skill.

Every one of them practiced proper brushing techniques on a grinning plastic set of teeth.

"Circle, circle, circle," dental hygienist Cynthia Byndas sang to the children, demonstrating with a giant toothbrush. "Now, out, out, out!"

And cavities or not, most of the children vowed to give up candy of all kinds, forever.

Except for fourth-grader Diamond Allen, 10, who had a better idea.

"I eat Trident [sugarless gum]," she said. "It's good for my teeth. And I eat it twice a day."

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