Advocates say Oregon's children are facing an oral health crisis. Children of color are among those hit hardest—and the COVID-19 pandemic is making the disparity worse.
Jenifer Wagley, executive director of child advocacy nonprofit Our Children Oregon, says racial demographic data collected on oral health is limited in the state, but the data that is available shows children of color are at higher risk of getting cavities.
"When you look at the racial demographics of it, we know who's affected: Low-income children, kids of color and kids in rural communities are the most impacted," Wagley says. "If you look at income, 68% of children living in lower-income communities have tooth decay compared to 44% of those in higher-income areas."
White children between the ages of 6 and 9 had fewer cavities and less untreated tooth decay than any other racial demographic, according to a 2019 Oregon Health Authority survey.
Black children ages 18 and under enrolled in Medicaid in 2018 had the lowest access to preventative services and the highest rate of ER visits for avoidable dental problems.
Cavities are entirely preventable and treatable. And compared to many of the racial disparities in this state, they may seem minor. But with lack of access to care or oral health education, a simple cavity can become a grave problem.
The leading cause of absenteeism from school is dental pain, Wagley says. Untreated cavities can impact a child's quality of life, causing pain that prevents them from being able to eat, sleep or concentrate in school.
WW reported previously in this series that Black Oregonians face higher rates of poverty than white Oregonians, and lower income and a preventable dental emergency can put families in debt, she says.
Wagley believes oral health has worsened since schools shut down in March due to COVID-19 because school-based care was how many children were getting treatment.
"We're really concerned because we know primary care is down, so we can assume oral health is slipping as well," Wagley says. "If part of the solution is school-based services, how are kids going to get what they need?"
This reporting has been funded in part by a grant from the Jackson Foundation. See more Black and White in Oregon stories here.