Volunteers bring healthier smiles to kids in need

(BPT) - Did you know half of all children in this country enter kindergarten with tooth decay? Tooth decay is the number one chronic infectious disease among children in the U.S., affecting 42 percent of children aged 2 to 11 years old, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition, nearly half of minority children and children receiving Medicaid benefits suffer from untreated tooth decay.

Good oral health is connected to good overall health. In fact, problems in the mouth can impact the rest of the body. If the tooth decay isn't fixed - or prevented in the first place - the consequences are much broader; children with untreated tooth decay often have more school absences, difficulty paying attention in school and lower self-esteem.

The good news is that with proper management and intervention, early forms of tooth decay can actually be stopped and reversed. Oral care habits start at home. Children should:

* Brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste;
* Floss once a day;
* Eat healthy meals;
* Visit the dentist once a year.

Unfortunately, despite improvements in children's access to dental care, many children continue to suffer. Leading the charge to address the gap in children's oral health care is Give Kids A Smile (GKAS), a national grassroots movement of passionate volunteer dental professionals and dental industry employees who work tirelessly behind the scenes to address this problem.

Dr. Timothy Kinnard, dental director at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, has seen GKAS in action first hand. "The Give Kids A Smile program gives children critically necessary dental treatment they may otherwise may not be able to access," Kinnard says. "It's a wonderful demonstration of how access to dentistry helps reduce the oral health disparities that exist in underserved communities."

Kids who attend one of 1,300 annual GKAS programs receive free oral health services including education, screening, preventive services and/or treatment from GKAS volunteers. GKAS is the largest children's oral health charitable program in the U.S., already providing 5.5 million children in need with services since the first national event in 2003. More than 500,000 volunteers, including almost 140,000 dentists, have volunteered their time and resources at thousands of sites nationwide to help children who may not otherwise have access to dental care.

Taking action

More needs to be done to teach families how to prevent childhood tooth decay. GKAS volunteers are working year-round to educate kids and families in their communities, and to provide free dental care to kids in need. Give Kids A Smile is part of the American Dental Association's Action for Dental Health initiative, highlighting the need for improved access to dental care for kids. The ADA Foundation continues to support GKAS volunteers so they can focus on what they do best - caring for those in need.

You can help. Find out more at ADAFoundation.org/GKAS.

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