Oral health is an essential component of overall health. Nearly half of all children have experienced dental decay by the time they reach the third grade. Nationally, 51 million school hours are lost each year due to dental disease. For children, poor oral health can interrupt life’s most basic activities, such as eating, sleeping, speaking and learning. In adulthood, the consequences become more severe. Dental disease is associated with stroke, heart disease, complications with diabetes, and the delivery of premature babies.

Here’s the good news. Dental disease is almost entirely preventable when children have access to the preventive and restorative care they need. Locally, our community has illustrated that when we work together to make children’s oral health a priority we can make progress. Here on the Island, the Vineyard Smiles program truly defines the meaning of community collaboration. Vineyard Smiles is a program of Island Health Inc. together with the Vineyard Health Care Access Program. Along with other oral health promotion activities, Vineyard Smiles provides school-based dental care to Island children. In the past school year, 326 children in the program were seen for a total of 476 dental visits. In addition, over 200 students participated in our oral health education program, called Tooth Tutoring. Many of these children had only limited access to dental care before Vineyard Smiles was created.

The heart of this community collaboration is our partnership with the public schools. Under the leadership of Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss, the schools have been wonderfully cooperative in hosting the mobile dental program. Each school principal has agreed to sponsor Vineyard Smiles so students can get much-needed dental care. Central to this partnership are the school nurses, who graciously allow us to transform their work spaces into dental offices for several days during the school year. They include Janice Brown, at the Charter School and Chilmark School, Donna Joyce at the Edgartown School, Jean Dowling at the Tisbury School, Mary Vivian at the Oak Bluffs School, Mary Beth Keenan at the West Tisbury School and Linda Leonard the high school. Teachers are also very supportive and helpful in making the program work smoothly, and in welcoming Tooth Tutoring into their classrooms. We also share an exceptional level of cooperation with the Head Start Program based at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

Finally, we are fortunate to have the Dukes County Health Council’s Oral Health Working Group, a group of concerned citizens that has worked for years to improve access to care and to improve oral health by treating it as a public health issue.

And while we should celebrate our success as a community, we can still do more. It is our responsibility to stamp out childhood caries — a preventable disease. In a year when the economic climate is tight, we need to make sure children’s oral health remains a top priority. We can do this by speaking out for children’s oral health and advocating for broader access to dental services. Better oral health for our children will help to ensure that they are prepared for the future. Join us in speaking up for children’s oral health and make this issue a priority for our community.

Dr. Peter Strock is chairman of the oral health working group of the Dukes County Health Council. Sarah Kuh is director of Vineyard Smiles.