High levels of tooth decay reported among Mission's Latino youth 

Health officials Tuesday expressed concerns over the dental health of Latino youth in the Mission, saying its population has more tooth decay cases than Chinatown, which is known for its dental trouble.

That information was highlighted during a meeting held by the San Francisco Children’s Oral Health Collaborative, which is pushing several initiatives to boost access to dental care in the Mission and citywide.

According to health professionals, the Mission has a lower percentage of reported kindergartners with tooth decay than Chinatown, the area with The City’s highest rates of tooth decay.

However, the actual numbers of affected youth in the Mission are much greater than Chinatown, the data show.

For example, 32 percent of kindergartners living in the 94110 ZIP code of the Mission experienced tooth decay in the 2013-14 school year compared to 53 percent in ZIP code 94108, which includes the southern portion of Chinatown, and 45 percent in ZIP code 94133 in the northern part of Chinatown.

However, 436 predominantly Latino kindergartners had tooth decay in the Mission ZIP code, while 60 were affected in the 94108 ZIP code in southern Chinatown and 96 in the 94133 ZIP code in northern Chinatown, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District’s Kindergarten Oral Health Screening Program, analyzed by the Department of Public Health.

Health officials suspect cultural issues play into the high rates of tooth decay among Latinos and other minorities.

“Hispanic Americans traditionally don’t drink water here because in their countries, the tap water is not safe,” said Margaret Fisher, an oral health consultant with the Department of Public Health. “Bottled water doesn’t have fluoride, which is a mineral that protects the teeth, and is in San Francisco tap water.”

In addition, Latino families often gift sweet foods to children and “it’s not interpreted as giving them dental decay,” Fisher said. Meanwhile, Chinatown has a large immigrant population that holds on to their home country’s belief that baby teeth aren’t important and will be replaced by permanent teeth anyway.

A major problem is the limited number of dentists that take DentiCal. At the community meeting at the Mission Neighborhood Centers Head Start/Early Head Start, Irene Hilton, a dentist at the department’s Silver Avenue Family Health Center, mentioned that Western Dental — one of The City’s largest dental providers — recently announced they will no longer accept DentiCal.

The collaborative, led by the SF Department of Public Health and UC San Francisco, includes dental health providers, school officials and advocates with a strategic plan toward making The City cavity-free. As part of its effort to increase access, the collaborative is pushing a couple of initiatives.

One part of the plan is exploring a sustainable billing system for federally qualified health centers to get reimbursed for sending their dentists with portable equipment to provide services at Head Start programs and other nontraditional care sites. The other initiative is getting doctors to give fluoride varnishes to young children during their primary care physician visits.

Maryna Pecherska, a health and nutrition manager at Mission Head Start, said that most of the roughly 400 children across the 10 Head Start programs citywide seek dental care from two clinics in the Mission: Children’s Choice Pediatric Dental Care and Native American Health Center Dental. About 85 percent of children at the 10 Head Start programs are from Latino families.

There needs to be more access to dental services in the Mission, Pecherska said, because families “go to those two because providers speak Spanish and it’s a two months wait, so it makes it more complicated for a child to get an appointment.”

The collaborative will be addressing oral health in the Bayview in late July.

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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