The Alex Dental Health Bus: On the road to better oral health with Calgary’s kids
The Alex Dental Health Bus visits underserved communities in Calgary, educating kids ages 6-24 on the importance of dental hygiene and providing preventative services such as sealants and fluoride treatments. Many who use the program are low-income, non-insured or underinsured, and shoulder the greatest burden of dental disease in our community. We take action because we know that dental health problems often lead to chronic pain, infection, lowered self-esteem, and compromised performance at school, with links to other serious health issues.
The effects of COVID-19
Despite the virus, the team is still out providing this vital service, which, it could be argued, is needed now more than ever with so many parents out of work, uninsured, and unable to pay out-of-pocket for dental care for their kids.
While there are negatives in the pandemic reality we’re facing, one of the “COVID wins” The Alex Dental Health team has identified has been shifting to a virtual platform for oral health education presentations. Whereas pre-pandemic, our dental hygienist would physically visit classrooms in Calgary’s highest needs schools, she can now virtually “visit” multiple classrooms in one morning to educate kids on how often to visit a dentist, what a cavity is and how it’s formed, good brushing and flossing habits, and healthy food and drink choices.
The long-term strategy for improving dental health
The focus of The Alex Dental Health Bus is not just education and preventative care, but also to act as a bridge to help people find dental “homes” in their communities.
So behind the scenes, staff have been building an innovative new referral system and network of dental offices across Calgary to ensure vulnerable kids with the most urgent needs are taken care of. Ideally every Calgarian who falls through the cracks of the dental system could access immediate care and be given help finding a dental home for regular check-ups and hygiene visits.
“The goal isn’t to have people rely on us – we are here to educate, prevent and recognize dental problems in the short term, and help build relationships between dentists and the community in the long term” says Dental Health Program Lead, Shannon Hawryluk.
The fluoride debate
Fluoride was removed from Calgary’s water in 2011. This year City Council announced a plebicite will take place in 2021 inviting Calgarians to vote on whether or not to put fluoride back in the water.
The conversation around water fluoridation may have resurfaced in Calgary, but for the team on The Alex Dental Health Bus, it’s been part of their daily work since the program started back in 2013. Our staff see the effects of deficient public dental health measures on Calgary kids every day. Our data continues to tell a troubling story – that 50% of the kids who come on the bus have cavities – and that’s not existing fillings, but ongoing active decay. Additionally, 20% of kids that have active decay are considered urgent, which we define as having pain or an infection.
The Alex believes that fluoridation is an equitable way to ensure every Calgarian has access to a base level of preventative dental health care. However, we know that this does not replace the importance of affordable access to dental care for everyone. Universal Dental Benefits would truly have the greatest public health impact.
“If you think of it like a pie chart, fluoride [in the water] is just a piece of the pie. Education is a piece, nutrition is a piece, topical fluoride that you get at the dentist is a piece, and of course access to dental care. We are in support of fluoride, yes, but we’re also in support of universal dental care for all. Without either one, we’re out here on the ground doing the best work we can in the meantime,” Says Hawryluk.
Want to help?
Are you part of a dentist office and want to join our dental access network? Sign up using our volunteer registration form!
In need of help?
View our Dental Health Bus page to find out if we’re visiting a location near you.