SIOUX FALLS | Dental care specialists in South Dakota are using a $3.3 million federal grant to launch a project to improve oral health on American Indian reservations.
Officials with the "Circle of Smiles" project have hired seven dental hygienists to serve tribal members and plan to hire 15 health coordinators to provide support services, including public education. The workers will visit clinics, schools and other agencies starting this month, serving tribal children up to age 9, urging preventive care.
"Compared to a lot of other diseases, oral health just doesn't rise to people's top levels of importance," said Connie Halverson, vice president of public benefit at the nonprofit insurer Delta Dental of South Dakota. "If your hand was bleeding, you would probably get that checked. But gums bleed and they ignore it. It doesn't make sense."
The three-year grant is from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It was awarded to Delta Dental, the Indian Health Service, the South Dakota Dental Association and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board. Delta Dental expects to contribute an additional $1 million for equipment, training and other expenses, Halverson said.
About 9 percent of South Dakota's population is Native American; 67,000 Indians live on nine reservations in the state. The grant application the South Dakota agencies sent the federal agency gave a dismal summary of disparities in health on reservations. Rates of early child tooth decay are six times greater in Native American children than in white children. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation analyzed the Pine Ridge reservation and found that 90 percent of participants in a study showed active dental decay, a rate three times higher than the U.S. rate.
"Poor oral health is a huge issue on the reservations," said Paul Knecht, executive director of the South Dakota Dental Association. "We can't find enough dentists to drill our way out of the oral health care problem we have on the reservation. The only long-term solution we have is prevention."
Marty Jones, an enrolled member of the Rosebud tribe who will work as one of the seven hygienists in the project, said she did not have her first dental checkup until ninth grade.
"The mind-set of the culture is don't go unless you have to," she said.