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Richmond kids have worst dental health in Metro Vancouver

Lorraine Graves   May-14-2019

Dentist Michele Nielsen of Steveston Smiles examines the baby teeth of Elliott Martin-Nielsen, 4.

Photo by Chung Chow


For too many Richmond families, good dental care presents a low priority.

With almost 40 per cent of all children starting Kindergarten with cavities, Dr. Meena Dawar, medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, says we can do better.

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In fact, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Richmond’s children have remarkably poor dental health, the worst in Metro Vancouver, she says.

Too many people don’t worry about baby teeth and their child’s health, thinking they are disposable teeth. But poor dental health can make the whole child more susceptible to illness, she says.

It also affects how your child does in school. According to a scientific article in the American Journal of Public Health, children with poor dental health miss more school and get lower marks.

While the Canadian Dental Association says in their 2018 national report that Canadians have experienced significant decreases in levels of dental decay over the past four decades, Richmond’s figures are a concern.

One contributing factor to Richmond’s poor dental health is that different cultures view dentistry differently.

In Canadian culture, children grow up knowing that they are supposed to see the dentist twice every year to detect problems early, when problems are minor and are treatable, before they cause pain or tooth loss. In other cultures, the norm is to see a dentist only if you have pain, which can be too late to save a child’s tooth.

Baby teeth are important, Dawar says. They allow the growing child to eat properly. They also allow the child to learn to speak properly. When their adult teeth start to come in, they will be better positioned in most cases if they are taking the place of an existing tooth.

“It may seem like baby teeth aren’t important since they fall out and are replaced, but lifelong dental health starts with baby teeth,” Dawar says. “Children need healthy baby teeth to sleep, smile and eat properly. Healthy baby teeth are an important part of children’s speech development and self-confidence, and play a significant role in the placement of permanent adult teeth.”

As well, the bacteria that rots teeth doesn’t just stay in the mouth. And the inflammation from dental decay can spread throughout the child’s body.

Dr. Brett Finlay is a body bacteria specialist at the University of British Columbia. He advises on how to keep adults and children’s microbiome, the good bacteria in our bodies, healthy. One piece of scientific advice he offers is to brush regularly to keep the bad bacteria at bay, even for small children.

Parents can also prevent tooth decay by ensuring kids brush their teeth after nighttime snacking or a bottle. If children eat or drink anything other than water, they need to have their teeth brushed, even baby teeth.

“A child’s first trip to the dentist should occur by age one or within six months of when the first tooth comes in,” dentist Dr. Michele Nielsen says.

That first trip is as much for the parents to learn how to keep their child healthy, as for the child to learn about going to the dentist.

“The first dental visit is often very brief and gives you and your child an opportunity to meet the dentist. Your child’s mouth will be examined by the dentist for any signs of early childhood decay and asses their oral development. This first appointment allows you to ask any questions you have about your child’s oral health routine,” Nielsen says.

Richmond dentist Dr. Randy Shew says he sees many cases of preventable dental decay in young children.

“Parents and caregivers (need to) understand that healthy baby teeth lead to the development of healthy adult teeth,” says Shew, who chairsthe dental association’s Childhood Dental Care Education Task Force.

Dr. Nielsen says a preschool visit costs between $46 and $85 for those without extra health insurance. Some employer health programs cover some or all of the cost of dental care.

The health region offers a no-cost dental program in Richmond for low-income families with children up to five years of age. Staff provide dental screening, fluoride treatments and counseling. Parents or physicians can contact Richmond Public Health Dental Program at 604-233-3104 to book an appointment.

The BC Dental Association website lists dentists accepting new patients, including those who see and treat children under four years. You can always ask the dentist about costs ahead of time to budget your dental care.

Without treatment, decay can spread deeper into the tooth, causing pain and infection and even damage to the underlying adult tooth.

“Prevention is the best medicine,” Dawar says. “Taking care of your children’s teeth early on can prevent painful decay, treatment under sedation or general anesthetic, and possibly future orthodontics.”


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