IOWA CITY — Sitting across from each other with knees touching, Hagir Malik and University of Iowa pediatric dentistry resident Kyle Nordeen on Thursday worked together to lay down 2-year-old Ahmed, hold his head steady and brush his baby teeth.
“He’ll probably cry, but that’s OK,” Nordeen told Malik, 35, of Iowa City, as he helped pry open her son’s mouth for his biannual dental exam. “Brush, brush, brush, brush, brush. Wow Ahmed, you have such beautiful teeth. You’re doing so good, big guy.”
The full exam lasted just minutes — including a rundown of Ahmed’s eating and brushing habits, along with a scan and cleaning inside his mouth. But Malik said the impact of the free dental screening will last much longer for her children, who she’s been able to keep in good oral health thanks to the UI College of Dentistry’s 20-year-old Infant Oral Health Program.
“It’s very good here,” Malik said of the program the UI Department of Pediatric Dentistry started in 1998 in hopes of reaching high-risk infants and toddlers in the community.
Through collaboration with the local Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC — and Johnson County Public Health, UI students, along with pediatric dentistry and medical residents, have improved access along with preventive and responsive dental care to low-income infants and toddlers via free dental screenings.
The program also has provided an opportunity for senior dental students and residents to gain hands-on experience in a community setting.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the program over its tenure has served 3,734 children ages 0 to 3 via 6,065 dental visits. The service targets that infant- to toddler-age-range based on the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry position that a child should first visit a dentist within six months of a first tooth and no later than at 1 year old.
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That recommendation came amid recognition that many children at age 3 already have experienced Early Childhood Caries, a pandemic disease prevalent among low-income and minority populations that can cause pain and potentially life-threatening infections.
“This is a group that is most in need of seeing a dentist,” said Kecia Leary, UI associate graduate program director and outreach program director.
A 2016 National Children’s Oral Health Foundation report revealed that although 89 percent of its surveyed 1-year-olds had been seen at a medical office, only 1.5 percent had been to a dental office visit. Increasing that figure could save money, even as it gives away services for free, in that the number and cost of dental procedures among high-risk kids is lower for those seen by a dentist at an earlier age.
“It also gives our dental students an opportunity to get outside of the dental school and see kids that need to see a dentist in a setting the families are familiar with,” Leary said.
To date, 1,411 UI dental students have rotated through the infant oral program, along with 81 pediatric dentistry residents. More than 90 pediatric medicine residents have participated in the program, and a 2015 survey showed those who did so were more likely to examine the teeth of kids age 3 and younger.
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