Op Ed by Jesse Mireles

February was Children’s Dental Health Month. Many years ago, when it was determined that we needed to set aside a month to call to everyone’s attention to the fact that dental care was an important part of our children’s health, most of the emphasis was placed on pretty smiles.

Today, the dental profession has chosen a new name, “Give Kids a Smile.” All parents want their kids to have white, shiny teeth, but healthy teeth are much more important than just their looks. And teeth need our attention and care every day, not just in February.

When dental care isn’t available or affordable, children often suffer from pain and infection. That pain can make it difficult for children to eat a proper diet, to sleep at night and be able to learn in school. Imagine a child trying to concentrate on schoolwork while having an excruciating toothache. But the results can be much worse.

Several years ago, a 12-year-old in Maryland died from what started as an untreated cavity. Days later a 7-year-old died in Mississippi after having a decayed tooth extracted. What folks forget is that the mouth is a part of the rest of the body. So, when a child has a dental infection (decay), that infection can spread throughout the body and cause very serious health problems.

Most parents are working and find it difficult to take time off to take their kids to a dentist. Even when they can, many face the issues of affordability, language barriers and other cultural differences. It isn’t easy to find a Hispanic dentist who might better understand our culture and our needs.

But there is hope. Many other countries and 13 states in the United States have dental therapists. It takes 8 years of very expensive education to become a dentist and learn very complex procedures. Dental therapists can be recruited from our communities and become members of the dental care team with only 3 years of less expensive but very intensive education. They provide only a small but especially important number of more routine services, like prevention, fillings, and some extractions.

Dental therapists can be recruited from our own Hispanic communities, providing wonderful employment opportunities. And each dental therapist can create 3 additional jobs in the community. They must work under the supervision of a dentist and the care they provide has been shown to be as good as that provided by a dentist.

The problem is that in Ohio, the dentist organizations have opposed this model and spent a lot of money to get state legislators to stop it. They have tried to scare people into thinking this isn’t a good response. That simply isn’t true.

It is time for our state legislature to step up and authorize dental therapists. To learn more and get involved, visit www.ohioansfordentalequity.org.