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Chipping Away at Poverty's Ill Effect

Event Gives Hundreds of Youths a Much-Needed Visit to the Dentist

By Susan Levine and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page B01

They came by bus with their classmates and teachers, but it was not a usual school field trip yesterday for about 270 children from Webb and Noyes elementary schools in the District.

Greeting them at the Howard University School of Dentistry were more than 100 dentists and dental students, volunteers hoping to make smiles sparkle, to fill cavities, to pull a tooth or two.

Howard University dentistry senior Candice Turpin gets a hug from Roneisha Anderson, 3, in Head Start at Noyes Elementary School. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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"Ah! Ah! Ah! It hurts!" yelped Gary Robinson Jr., 5, as Eugene Giannini, a dentist, cleaned out the second of two cavities that had damaged large portions of Gary's baby teeth.

"It's okay, Gary. I'll take care of you," Giannini said as he quickly applied some fast-drying filling material. "Look at that tooth -- it's all better. You want to look in the mirror?"

It was all part of the third Give Kids a Smile, a nationwide initiative of the American Dental Association that aims to provide free oral health care to low-income children, many of whom have never had a dental appointment.

The children's mouths, often rife with decay and gum disease by first grade, give them away, dentists said. "Their teeth are just totally bombed out," said Sally Cram, the dentist who led the logistics yesterday at Howard.

"You can't think of dental disease as this thing that doesn't affect anything else," Cram said, adding that it can affect children physically and socially. They may not eat or sleep properly. They may become introverted because of embarrassment, she said.

Beyond that, studies indicate that gum disease and inflammation, when left untreated, can lead to such serious health problems as diabetes.

In December, Cram and other members of the D.C. Dental Society visited the two Ward 5 elementary schools in Northeast Washington to do preliminary screenings, peering by flashlight as they cajoled nearly 600 boys and girls to open up.

Ninety percent of those in line needed some sort of dental care. "A large majority" were suffering significant decay in five or more teeth, Cram said.

The same sort of advance planning took place across the region. And the results yesterday were similar.

In Maryland, 150 dentists offered free pediatric care in their individual offices, a donation that the Maryland State Dental Association estimated at $500,000.

Across the river, a cadre of volunteers from the Northern Virginia Dental Society and Northern Virginia Community College massed at the school's Springfield campus to give more than 200 Alexandria children screenings, cleanings, sealants and further evaluation.

"These kids can't function in school because their mouths are hurting," said Brenda Young, a dentist and lead organizer for that effort.

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