The American Dental Association (ADA) sponsors the National Children’s Dental Health Month to raise awareness about the importance of children’s oral health each February. Farmworkers’ poor oral health is a silent epidemic in the United States; many thousands suffer from painful infections, untreated caries (or cavities), and other oral health problems.
A 2007 study in North Carolina found that 80% of farmworkers had not received dental services within the past year, compared to 48% of adults and 22% of children in the general population. A 2005 study in Southern Illinois revealed that 69% of migrant farmworkers had at least one decayed tooth and more than 50% had three or more decayed teeth. Farmworker children suffer from oral health complications, just like their parents. An article in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health showed that migrant farmworker children are 48% more likely to have decayed teeth surfaces and 47% less likely to have filled surfaces than U.S. school children. Childhood tooth problems can lead to long-term health complications in adulthood.
An especially big problem among farmworker children is the rate of Early Childhood Caries (ECC), or Baby Bottle Tooth Decay (BBTD). ECC is often caused by babies being lulled to sleep while sucking on a bottle, causing the liquid to pool inside the child’s mouth, often resulting in tooth decay. Many farmworkers bottle feed their children as demanding work schedules often restrict breastfeeding opportunities and they want to soothe their children during hectic times. Furthermore, WIC subsidizes infant formula, which can make it a reasonable expense for farmworker families. Use of baby bottles often continues into the toddler years, substituting infant formula for sugary drinks and juices, which can be a major culprit in tooth decay.
Furthermore, appropriate dental hygiene and regular visits to the dentist are often lacking among farmworker families. This is predominately due to socioeconomic restrictions, lack of time, constant migration, and lack of knowledge about dental care for children. Dental health issues early on in life can lead to long-term health problems, such as extended periods of pain, tooth extractions, and crooked teeth.
Most farmworkers have limited English abilities, which can place them at a great disadvantage if health information is English-only. The ADA has launched a bilingual campaign geared towards children and teens. It aims to encourage youth to brush their teeth twice daily, clean in between teeth, limit snacks and opt for nutritious foods, and visit the dentist regularly so that you can “Rock Your Smile!”
There are some other programs that also focus on farmworkers’ oral health by erasing some of the barriers farmworkers currently face in attaining care. Healthy Smiles for a Lifetime (Sonrisas Saludables Para Toda La Vida), which is an oral health training curriculum for lay health workers, allows community members to help prevent dental health issues in their own communities. The bilingual campaign is especially heartening, given the great need for this information in the farmworker community. Tooth Mobile, a non-profit that brings affordable dental health care to underserved, hard to reach communities, is another opportunity to improve farmworker’s dental health by eliminating transportation barriers.
If you are interested in helping improve the dental health of children in farmworker communities, we encourage you to learn about what opportunities are available in your community to help.