Fighting toothlessness in Appalachia
Mobile dental clinics hope to brighten smiles
STANTON, Kentucky (AP) — With a silvery Airstream trailer as a dental office, Dr. Jeff Bailey goes about his work, brightening the often gapped smiles of people in a part of the country with the highest rate of toothlessness in America.
Bailey, one of many volunteers who are bringing free mobile dental care to poor people in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, sees case after case of severe tooth decay and gum disease — the consequences of sugary foods, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, a lack of fluoridated water, and simple neglect.
“People have a mind-set that if your grandfather and father were in dentures, then you’re going to be in dentures, too,” the dentist said. “We need to break that attitude.”
The volunteers are trying to reach people who cannot afford dental care but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.
The central Appalachian states lead the nation in toothlessness. More than 32 percent of Tennessee residents surveyed last year had lost six or more teeth because of decay or gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number was 38 percent in Kentucky and 43 percent in West Virginia, which holds the distinction of the most toothless state. Kentucky ranked No. 1 in toothlessness in 2003.
“The problem is almost epidemic in the state,” said Dr. Gerald Ferretti, a dental professor at the University of Kentucky, which has four dental vans. “Dental care is a very, very critical need.”
Bailey is part of an effort organized by Southern Baptist churches. Other charitable organizations have opened free clinics in church buildings or held dental-care events in Wal-Mart parking lots across the region, handing out free samples of toothpaste, floss and toothbrushes.
Changing attitudes one by one
On a recent day dozens of people made their way into the Airstream parked outside Stanton Baptist Church 45 miles from Lexington, while clowns entertained the waiting crowds. Bailey handles only fillings and cleanings in his mobile dental office. But the University of Kentucky vans are equipped to take X-rays and pull teeth.
Jill Adams, a West Liberty bookkeeper for a surveying company, said the mobile clinic will help her and her children keep their teeth. She took her twin sons, 8-year-olds Aaron and Barrin, to the Airstream, so that Bailey could apply dental sealants to prevent cavities.
“Those sealants are expensive, $25 per tooth, and I don’t have insurance,” Adams said. “I thought it was wonderful. I would have not expected something like this. I was really caught off guard.”
Organizers of the mobile dental offices said too many people in mountain communities have the mistaken notion that losing teeth is a normal part of growing old. Some do not seem to realize that teeth are intended to last a lifetime.
“People feel like they can do without teeth, or that they can always buy false ones,” said David Aker, mountain missions director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Ferretti said he hopes the university’s mobile dental service can help change that attitude by instilling good habits from the start.
“We’re trying to get to the children as early as we can,” he said.
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