Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released interim guidance advising routine, non-essential oral health care be postponed because of the coronavirus and transmission risks. Less than two weeks later, the American Dental Association (ADA) released a statement saying that it “respectfully yet strongly disagrees.” The inconsistent recommendations are adding confusion in an already-bewildering time. If there was ever a critical moment for unity among health organizations, it is now.
Let me be clear: The WHO is wrong about postponing oral health care during this pandemic. Here’s why.
Dental offices are safe.
As a father myself, I understand how protective parents are of their children. But as a dentist, I can assure you we are leaders in handling infectious disease. This dates back to the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Dental offices across the country were already using these standard precautions before the pandemic. And now they have stepped up safety protocols, revamping offices to strengthen ventilation, sanitation procedures, and personal protective equipment.
Oral health issues don’t pause when there is a pandemic.
What would it look like to have your child sit out dental care for an entire year or more? As a dentist and orthodontist for over two decades, I have some ideas. Dental cavities will get bigger, gum infections will worsen and orthodontic problems will progress. In other words, minor problems can turn into major ones and potentially cause serious and irreversible harm.
Plain and simple, oral health care is essential, especially for children — 42% of kids aged 2 to 11 will develop cavities. Enamel on baby teeth is thinner than on permanent teeth, and the pulp is relatively larger, so decay can spread to nerves faster. For children with orthodontic problems, there is a limited window of opportunity during which treatment will get ideal results. And once that window closes, treatment options may become limited and/or will increase treatment time. The end result can be significantly compromised.
Oral health improves a child’s potential for success.
A recent study found children needing dental care are three times more likely to miss school and those with toothaches are four times more likely to have a below-average GPA. These numbers may sound staggering, but in reality, it’s quite simple. Dental pain impacts children’s sleep. Without quality sleep, they’re not as alert and their memory and behavior are negatively impacted. Kids with toothaches can’t eat hard-to-chew fruits and vegetables that are so critical for their proper growth and development. And if you had a toothache, would you be able to sit in class and listen to the teacher? I wouldn’t either.
Here’s another shocking statistic: 51 million hours of school are missed on average every year by kids due to dental problems. And that’s pre-pandemic! Needless to say, kids are missing even more school hours nowadays. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the fact that teeth are one of the biggest reasons kids get teased or bullied. Why add more difficulty to your child’s already-challenging year?
Gum disease and COVID-19 complications may be linked.
If you needed one more reason to dismiss the WHO’s shortsighted recommendation, the latest research has revealed a link between gum disease and COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. New data suggests there may be a link between COVID-19 patients with underlying gum disease and higher potentially life-threatening complications. This is not surprising to the dental profession since poor oral health has long been known as a risk factor in the initiation and/or progression of many respiratory infections.
The WHO’s statement strategically played on people’s emotions and created unnecessary apprehension. How many children’s toothaches were ignored because of it? How many people allowed gum disease to advance, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus and COVID-19? More than ever, this is a time to care for our health, so wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands frequently and go to the dentist. Your life depends on it.
Hoss is a San Diego-based orthodontist and dentofacial orthopedist, author and founder of The Super Dentists. He is on the Board of Counselors at UCLA School of Dentistry where he received his doctorate in dental surgery. He lives in Rancho Santa Fe.
This Commentary was originally featured in the San Diego Union Tribune.