(Terry Harris/Chicago Tribune file)

Washington’s nationally acclaimed Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD) Program, providing dental care to young children from low-income families, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

ABCD has helped improve the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of kids across the state, including many in the Yakima Valley.

ABCD started in Spokane County and has spread to all 39 counties. The model has even been adopted by several other states. In Washington, the percent of eligible children receiving dental care annually has grown from 20% to 54%.

ABCD in Yakima County is truly a success story, at 66.2%, leading the state — and the nation — in the percent of lower-income children from birth to age 6 who are receiving dental care. The number of our county’s children receiving care has nearly tripled since 1999.

Yakima dentist David Brown, ably assisted by Mary Ann Walker, deserves much of the credit for the program’s success. Dr. Brown has been the local volunteer ABCD Dental Champion since the Yakima County program began. The dental society manages and supports the ABCD program through their Central Washington Oral Health Foundation.

Yet, many Yakima County children who would benefit tremendously are still not receiving ABCD services. Additional state funding is needed to reach more children of color, since statewide, dental disease is 50% higher for those youngsters. Especially important is increased state funding (which is matched by federal funds) for local programs so they can increase outreach to underserved communities.

Oral health is vitally important because the pain from severe cavities can interfere with sleeping, concentrating and learning in school and eating nutritious foods. Dental problems that start small can quickly become serious and expensive to treat. Cavities in baby teeth can spread to permanent teeth. Infections can move to other parts of the body.

Children under age 6 in families covered by Apple Health (our state’s Medicaid program) are eligible for ABCD. ABCD-certified dentists are trained to care for young children and receive enhanced fees for certain procedures.

The program provides:

  • Preventive care to keep dental disease from starting.
  • Early treatment to keep cavities from spreading and becoming more serious.
  • Education, to make sure families understand the importance of oral health and know how to practice good oral health habits at home.

Children are not healthy if their mouths are not healthy, which is why physicians are also an important part of ABCD. They often see young children several times for well-child visits before many children get to a dentist.

In Yakima, more than 47 physicians are trained to look for oral health problems, provide fluoride varnish to help prevent cavities, share oral health tips and refer children to a dentist.

The seriousness and expense of dental disease, plus its connection to overall health, demand attention. Prevention, treatment and education provide benefits, not only to the children directly affected, but also to their families and to the entire community.

All children deserve the dental care they need to be healthy.

Dr. Russell Maier is president of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians and physician adviser to the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima. He co-founded Smiles for Life, the national oral health curriculum for health care providers. Carmen Mendez is a board member of Arcora Foundation (the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington) and a former Yakima City Council member.