Cut Cavities by Applying Dental Sealants in Schools, CDC Says

Megan Brooks

October 18, 2016

Dental sealants could prevent up to 80% of cavities in permanent molars, yet a substantial number of US children don't get sealants, especially those from low-income families, federal health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today.

"The bottom line is that school-based dental sealant programs protect kids' teeth, and they save money. They are extremely effective, but they are underutilized," CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, said during a media briefing today. "We can help millions more kids prevent cavities by starting or expanding programs that offer dental sealants in schools."

These programs are a "best buy" and a "win-win" for everyone, he added.

"Tooth decay is one of the greatest unmet treatment needs among children," Susan O. Griffin, PhD, of the CDC's Division of Oral Health, and colleagues note in a Vital Signs report published online October 18 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to pain and difficulty eating, speaking, and learning, they note.

Using recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, Dr Griffin and colleagues found that about 60% of children aged 6 to 11 years from low-income families (approximately 6.5 million children) did not have dental sealants.

Although sealant use in the past decade increased by 72% among low-income children, these children were still 20% less likely than children from higher-income families to receive dental sealants. Children without sealants had almost three times more cavities in permanent first molars compared to their peers with sealants.

According to the CDC, dental sealants prevent 80% of cavities for 2 years after application and continue to protect against 50% of cavities for up to 4 years after application. The sealants can remain on teeth and continue to be effective for up to 9 years.

School-based sealant programs (SBSPs) target schools with a high percentage of children eligible for free or reduced-cost meal programs. They provide sealants to children who are at higher risk for cavities and who are less likely to receive preventive dental care.

Applying sealants in school-based programs to the roughly 6.5 million low-income children who don't have them would prevent 3.4 million cavities over 4 years and could save up to $300 million in dental treatment costs, the CDC says. "A recent rigorous review showed that school-based sealant programs save money within 2 years," Dr Frieden noted.

The CDC encourages states to start SBSPs or to increase access to those that are available. It also encourages states to implement policies that deliver SBSPs in the most cost-effective manner and help connect schools with health departments, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program offices, community health centers, and dental professionals in the community.

The CDC currently provides funding to 21 state public health departments to coordinate and implement school-based and school-linked sealant programs that target low-income children and those who live in rural settings.

MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. Published online October 18, 2016. Full text

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