Task force seeks to solve oral health-care problem in Eastern Panhandle

November 30, 1999|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va ? "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth ... my two front teeth ... my two front teeth ..."

For more than 10,000 Eastern Panhandle children who receive no dental care, that meager Christmas wish likely won't be granted this year.

"That (West Virginia Medicaid program) statistic to me was mind-blowing," said Susan B. Walter, a member of the recently formed Eastern Panhandle Oral Health Task Force and community liaison for Shenandoah Valley Medical System Inc. in Martinsburg.

Walter said she was "flabbergasted" earlier this year to learn about the number of Eastern Panhandle children in need of dental care, let alone the more than 10,500 in the Panhandle who do not receive preventive care, according to state health officials.


"We want these kids to have their two front teeth for Christmas," Walter said after being reminded of the holiday jingle written by Donald Better Gardner in 1944. "It's stunning what our little kids are walking around with (in their mouths)."

According to Betty Russell, chairwoman of the task force, the initiative to establish a local oral health clinic to increase children's access to dental care and launch education initiatives about its relevance to total body health began in September 2005.

The closest oral health care clinic for Eastern Panhandle children is in Baker, W.Va., in Hardy County, about 90 minutes away, said Russell, whose husband, W. Dean Russell, is a local oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

"We're determined to make this thing work, one way or another," she said.

Since the task force formed in February, community interest in helping tackle the crisis has grown, Russell said. The group received a $25,000 planning grant in April from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, and a survey conducted this summer by a West Virginia University pre-dental student revealed that a number of area dentists, though already swamped with patients, still were willing to volunteer to support the effort, Russell said.

Earlier this month, Mitch Jacques, dean of West Virginia University's Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center's Eastern Division in Martinsburg, announced the hiring of Lisa Dunn to direct the school's dental health programs and develop area school-based dental screening programs and coordinate the teaching of students.

"The school nurses have come to us and said, 'This is just breaking our hearts," Dunn said of students coming to school, but distracted from learning by toothaches and related oral health problems.

Dunn will begin her new position with WVU on Jan. 22, after more than 15 years as a sanitarian with the Jefferson County Health Department.

"A huge part of this is going to be educating the parents," said Dunn, noting that many people, even those who are affluent, now shy away from drinking public water and the fluoridation treatment for dental health that comes with it. Fluoride isn't in bottled water.

"My personal goal (for 2007) would be to definitely have some type of dental clinic set up," Dunn said.

She also would like to eventually have a mobile dental care unit to take to schools to offset the lack of space in the region's increasingly crowded school buildings.

Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon said Friday he hoped new buildings in the future would be able include space for preventive care programs.

"I think there is a great need to re-educate our community and our parents on good health habits," Arvon said, describing the dental care statistics as "alarming at best."

Jacques thinks the lack of dental care services in the Eastern Panhandle is a reflection of the area's population growth.

"This is a start. It's not going to solve the problem," Jacques said. "I'm really excited about this."

Though envisioned by other task force members, Jacques said he couldn't immediately address whether WVU dental school students one day would be able help provide care in the Eastern Panhandle under the guidance of university faculty, similar to a WVU medical school initiative already under way.

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