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Sonoma County kids helped at free dental program

Yolanda Alverez holds her daughter Tracy Figueroa, 2, as dentist Christine Tomaszewski checks her teeth Friday during her first dental visit at the Saint Joseph Health Dental Clinic in Santa Rosa.

By SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 4:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 4:22 p.m.

Small white lines on three of Tracy Figueroa's upper teeth were detected Friday during the toddler's first dental visit. Precursors to gum-line cavities, the lesions were a wake-up call for greater parental vigilance.

Although the 2½-year-old girl does not drink soda, she does occasionally consume candy and a little juice, said her mother, Yolanda Alvarez of Santa Rosa. Brushing and flossing, Alvarez added, does not come easily.

Christine Tomaszewski, a dentist who works at St. Joseph Health's dental clinic in west Santa Rosa, told Alvarez she must be persistent with her daughter. “You can't let a day go by without brushing her teeth” just because she cries, she said.

The clinic was one of 10 dental sites in Sonoma County that participated Friday and Saturday in a nationwide campaign to provide free dental care to hundreds of low-income children.

The campaign, known as “Give Kids a Smile,” is sponsored nationally by the American Dental Association. The program, organized locally by Community Action Partnership, brought together about 180 dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants.

Hundreds of children received free dental services, from screenings to cleanings to urgent treatment for tooth decay. In some cases, children with severe dental issues were referred to pediatric surgeons.

Dentists at local health centers and several private practice dentists donated their skills to the program. Local dental experts said the need is urgent.

Dr. Susan Cooper, Community Action Partnership's health programs manager, said about 30 percent of all low-income children in Santa Rosa have tooth decay when they see the dentist for the first time.

“I was in private practice in Santa Rosa for almost 30 years; I didn't see half the problems in private practice that I see now,” she said.

Cooper, who leads the Sonoma County Oral Health Access Coalition, said the program has grown continually since it was launched nine years ago. In the first year, about 150 local kids received dental care and last year about 400 were treated.

This year, 745 children were scheduled for free care, though Cooper said the final count, which includes some drop-ins, was about 600.

At the Sonoma County Indian Health Project dental clinic, which is equipped with 15 dental chairs, more than 130 children received treatment.

Elvira Fiorentino, a dentist and director at Alliance Medical Center's dental clinic, which has 6 dental chairs, saw a steady flow of children on Saturday.

“This is a day where dental services are free to the community — it's all about access and we are happy to do it,” said Fiorentino.

Tomaszewski said that many of the kids being treated have extensive decay; “not just little dots” but conditions that require large fillings or crowns. Some of the children previously were treated at the nonprofit PDI Surgery Center in Windsor.

Treating cavities is not enough, said Cooper, noting that dental decay is the result of caries, a disease caused by bacteria infection.

“Even if you treat the cavity, the disease is still present because the bacteria is present,” she said.

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