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Teeth Training: Area dentist hopes to get young kids early exams

Ian Kreher

From the Altoona Mirror:

Teeth Training: Area dentist hopes to get young kids early exams

By William Kibler

October 16, 2010


Altoona dentist Dr. Donald Betar plans to be jawing soon with state lawmakers about a law he'd smile to see enacted.

The law would require parents to bring their kids to the dentist by 6 months of age, in keeping with American Medical Association guidelines.

Betar is clinical director of Altoona Regional Health System's dental clinic for kids - which accepted a $1,000 donation from an insurance company Friday - and it makes him grit his teeth to see damage done by kids starting dental care too late.

Probably only 5 percent of the clinic's 2,000 low-income patients come there the first time with no cavities, and about 75 percent have three or more, putting them in the "early onset dental caries" category, he said.

"If we don't see children by six months, we miss the opportunity to train their parents to care properly for their children's teeth," Betar said. "If they come in at six months, we have a fighting chance."

Good dental care enforced by parents would prevent virtually all cavities for all kids, he said.

The old excuse about inheriting "soft teeth" is a fallacy, because teeth enamel is all the same, he said.

Problems with teeth can run in families, but that comes mainly from transmission of bacteria that flourishes in the mouths of those with dental decay - through kissing and sharing utensils, Betar said. Such bacteria is present in the mouths of people with sound teeth but in much smaller amounts.

He likes to think pediatricians urge parents to take their kids to the dentist at six months, but figures the parents don't hear or take it seriously, he said. Many wait three years or more, until pre-school or kindergarten requires a dental certificate.

It's different with general medical care: A law requires parents to bring their kids at regular intervals starting just after birth, he said.

Many parents think dental care for children is no big deal, figuring baby teeth fall out anyway, he said.

But it is a big deal, because kids get cavities, abscesses, infections and may feel chronic pain, lose sleep, miss school and cause their parents to miss work, he said, speaking of a "cascade" of effects.

If kids lose their baby teeth too soon, they can also lose proper spacing for adult teeth, he said.

"If they come in at six years, the damage is done," Betar said. "It's all damage control."

Too often, also, parents let kids handle brushing on their own at too young an age - as early as two, said Betar and Dr. Haley Hawk, the clinic's full-time dentist. They recommend parental brushing early on and supervision until age 10.

The clinic at the Greater Altoona Career & Technology Center draws from a nine-county area. It provides an opportunity for hands-on experience for students in the dental-assisting program.

Kids from 1 to 18 years old are eligible if their families meet income guidelines. A family of two can earn up to $27,380; a family of four, up to $41,300.

Referrals come from insurance companies, schools and word of mouth from family and friends, officials said.

One reason the area needs the clinic is the widespread refusal of Medicaid patients by dentists, according to Hawk.

The clinic began 10 years ago with screening only, but increased its capabilities to become full-service by 2008, when Hawk became a full-time dentist there.

Initial visits often disclose serious problems, but for regular patients, it's regular maintenance, said clinic Director Nancy Hawk, Haley's mom.

"The message to the community," Betar said. "The sooner you get your child to the dentist, the better."