Health inequities prevent some Illinois children from accessing oral health care

Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation highlights issue during Children’s Dental Health Month

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (Jan. 26, 2021) — Many Illinois children aren’t getting the oral health care they need to prevent and treat cavities.

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a time to bring awareness not only to the importance of good oral health care among children, but also the need to expand access to care. Improved access can reduce health inequities and ensure all children receive the care they need for a lifetime of overall health and well-being.

Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases among children,1 though it is largely preventable. Statistics show Illinois children of color and those from low-income families are more likely to suffer from cavities, less likely to have dental sealants to protect against cavities and have greater unmet oral health needs.2

“The inequity in Illinois children’s access to good oral health care continues to be a challenge,” said Lora Vitek, executive director for Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation, whose mission is to improve the overall health and well-being of Illinoisans, and especially children, through education and access to quality health care.

“More than half of children in some racial and ethnic groups are suffering from cavities, and a majority of them aren’t getting sealants to protect them from tooth decay,” Vitek said.

Health inequities in cavities, sealants, unmet needs

Data from the Illinois Department of Public Health illustrate some of the health inequities among Illinois children:

  • Cavities: More than half of Latino third-graders in Illinois (52%) have suffered from cavities, followed closely by Asian children (49%).3 This compares with 37% of white students.
  • Sealants: Less than half of Illinois Black (46%), Asian (49%) and Latino (49%) children have dental sealants to protect their teeth from cavities, compared with nearly 3 out of 5 (57%) of white children.4
  • Untreated tooth decay: More than 1 in 5 Illinois third-graders (22%) suffer from untreated cavities — a rate that’s higher than similarly-aged children nationwide (15%).5 The rate of untreated tooth decay is higher among Asian (29%) and Black (27%) children in Illinois.

Cavities left untreated can become infected, destroy the inside of the tooth and possibly lead to tooth loss. This is not only painful but can affect students’ self-esteem, school attendance, concentration and grades.

Efforts to address inequities in oral health care

Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation is focused on addressing these oral health care inequities through education and by increasing access to care. Foundation programs such as Dentist By 1 and Land of Smiles teach Illinois children how to practice good oral health habits, and about the importance of preventive care.

“Through our Dentist By 1 program, we offer free dental care for young children and educate caregivers about the importance of taking kids to the dentist by age 1, as well as train dental professionals,” Vitek said. “And with the help of superheroes, our Land of Smiles program teaches Illinois elementary schoolchildren about good oral health in a fun and interactive way.”

This year, National Children’s Dental Health Month is focused on the benefits of drinking water.6 Choosing water instead of sugary beverages can help keep teeth strong and reduce cavities by almost 25%.7

To increase access to drinking water at school and encourage Illinois students to choose water over soda, juice or sports drinks, Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation partnered with the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation to provide 85 Illinois schools with new Elkay water bottle-filling stations as part of the H2O On the Go grant program. The schools also received toothbrushes and reusable water bottles for their students. Installation of the water bottle-filling stations is scheduled to be completed this spring.

About the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation

The Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation was formed in March 2008 by Delta Dental of Illinois, a not-for-profit dental service corporation with a mission to improve overall health and well-being. Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation is the 501(c)(3) charitable arm of Delta Dental of Illinois. In the past decade, combined efforts of Delta Dental of Illinois and Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation have provided more than $11 million to programs and organizations in Illinois that improve the oral health of the state’s residents. For additional information about Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation, visit deltadentalil.com/ddilfoundation.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

2,3,4 “Healthy Smiles Healthy Growth,” Illinois Department of Public Health

5 Illinois Department of Public Health, February 2020 data brief

6 American Dental Association

7Centers for Disease Control and Prevention