By ESTHER SMITH
News staff writer
Since the 1970s, and probably before that, dental professionals in Hood River County have been fighting a losing battle against tooth decay.
Federal, state and county agencies and individuals have had numerous programs for education, prevention, and low- or no-cost care, but dental health is still listed on Hood River County’s 2004-2005 Assessment as “a huge problem” in this area.
Fluoridated water is seen by these professionals as an important facet of overall dental care, others being healthful eating habits, good oral hygiene, and regular dental visits.
But, as everyone knows, the issue of water fluoridation has an embattled history that dates back to the 1950s.
In the May 15, 1953, Hood River News, it was reported that a Robert G. Millard spoke at a meeting of the Lions Club on “Water Fluoridation — a Civic and National Menace.”
He was said to have quoted “several American chemists and physiologists” that said “go easy on water fluoridation.”
Two years later, an advertisement paid for by the Hood River County Tuberculosis and Health Association read: “What is Fluoridation?
“It simply means that a vital element which God has given us to insure strong, healthy teeth sometimes has to be added to a community water supply, so that we can have the necessary chemicals and minerals to stay well.
“It is just as natural to add fluoridation to water as it is to add salt to food — both are important to good health.
“Both are natural elements, not man-made.”
The two sides could not agree then, and in the years since, every time the issue has surfaced — in the 1970s, 1990s, 2001, 2002, and again today — they are not any closer to an agreement. In the meantime, many committed people have tried through various programs to slow the rate of decay in Hood River County.
In 1972 the county health department, with the help of volunteers, started a pilot program at May Street to improve dental hygiene at the grade school level.
A few days a week, volunteers worked with the children in large and small groups to improve their dental practices.
That same year the state health department brought a two-day comprehensive health screening at Mid Valley school, where nearly 200 Hood River Valley youngsters aged 3 to 6 years old whose families might not otherwise be able to afford such thorough examinations.
The state had run similar checks elsewhere in the state, but it was the first time it had held them here.
At the end of that screening the state health nurse consultant said that, compared to children in other parts of the state, youngsters here tested much the same except when it came to the dental part of the test.
That evaluation showed an 85 percent referral rate, compared to what she said was under 10 percent in areas with natural or other fluoridation in the water.
In 1974 the state department made available a fluoride mouth wash program for elementary schools, on a voluntary basis. That program, initially called “Swish and Swash” and now called the King Fluoride program, continues today, in either a weekly rinse or daily tablet form. Since it is voluntary, parents must take the initiative and sign up for it. It is aimed at schools with at least 30 percent of the children on free- or reduced-lunch programs.
Head Start programs have been doing beginning-of-school-year physical and dental screenings for their students since at least the 1980s. In the early 1990s, La Clinica del Carino obtained grants for dental screenings and sealant programs aimed at mid-Columbia youngsters who were unable to afford dental care elsewhere, which were conducted as 3-day clinics.
Several of these clinics were held over the period of a few years, and it was found that many of the children had too much decay to be candidates for sealants.
The problem of decay was so prevalent that in 1994 a group of dental and health professionals got together and formed the Oral Health Improvement Council, with the goal of educating the public about dental hygiene and oral health habits. They distributed 3,000 brochures, printed in both English and Spanish, to K-5 schools throughout the county. The brochures covered the importance of brushing, the problem with eating frequently, and the importance of fluoride.
A dental hygienist visited each school and visited each K-5 teacher, to answer questions and make sure they understood the material and could pass it on to the students.
The council also made a push to fluoridate Hood River’s city water, but the issue was delayed and finally shelved by the city council until installation and operation costs could be compiled. The oral health council dissolved shortly after that.
In 1995 La Clinica received a grant from Public Health Services to open a three-chair dental clinic. Before long the need for services was so great that there was a 3-month waiting period, so another grant was applied for and awarded to expand the clinic by two chairs and one dentist.
For the last three years, many local dentists and staff have donated a whole day of professional services to “Give a Kid a Smile” day, sponsored by the American Dental Association, with follow-up care provided to the most severe cases. Thousands of dollars worth of professional care has been donated by these dentists and their staff, but it remains that the professionals’ biggest emphasis is prevention.