Cleveland Street School Nurse, Lynn Jacobs, left, and teachers Keisha Lee and Esak Crawley with students scheduled for check-ups at the School of Dental Medicine.
Tooth decay, one of the most widespread chronic diseases in the United States, affects 42 percent of all children, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Kids with serious oral health problems can have difficulty eating, sleeping and concentrating in school. As a result, more than 51 million hours of school are lost each year to dental-related illnesses.
When students at the Cleveland Street Elementary School in Orange have a toothache, school nurse Lynn Jacobs is often the first to know.
“I’m the one that sees them when they’re in pain,’’ Jacobs said.
Jacobs expressed hope that her students could defy the statistics. They are among more than 500 children in Newark and nearby towns who have visited Rutgers School of Dental Medicine
in the past few months for a free dental exam and sealants, which are applied to prevent cavities.
Made of clear plastic-based materials, sealants prevent decay by covering grooves and pits in the tooth surface, where most cavities are formed. The program is funded with a grant from Oral Health America
, an organization that helps increase access to oral healthcare, especially among the underserved.
“For children who often lack access to regular dental visits, preventive measures like sealants can play a critical role in keeping them cavity free,” said dental school Dean Cecile A. Feldman.
Rutgers School of Dental Medicine treats many underprivileged patients in New Jersey and beyond who are in dire need of dental care. Its pediatric clinic in Newark receives more than 10,000 visits a year, making it New Jersey’s largest provider for children, particularly those on Medicaid, which many state dentists don’t accept. Faculty and students also go overseas to help the underserved in nations like Haiti and Bangladesh.
“We specialize in providing care to individuals who are unable to access care elsewhere due to financial status, disability or specialized need,’’ Feldman said.
For some Essex County children, dental school programs like the sealant initiative mark their first visit to the dentist.
“In a nation as wealthy as ours, it’s a travesty that regular visits to the dentist are inaccessible to so many,’’ said Beth Truett, CEO of Oral Health America.
The donation of sealants and money to provide transportation for students to the school is part of Oral Health America’s Smiles Across America campaign, which has sealed the teeth of more than 1 million children since it began in 2004 and is working to reach 2 million by 2020.
Although some of the children at Cleveland Street School had bad memories of past dental visits, they weren’t dreading their turn in the chair during a recent visit to get sealants.
“They told us it wouldn’t hurt,’’ said third-grader Jordane Wilson.
Added classmate Winter Douglas, “I’m not afraid at all.’’
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