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Release: March 2, 1999

UI outreach program provides dental care for infants

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- After coming to the University of Iowa College of Dentistry for a graduate program in pediatric dentistry and public health, Karin Weber, D.D.S., noticed that few parents were bringing their infants to the college's clinics for treatment. She responded by starting a project that has become both a community service and a tool for teaching and research.

"I proposed a program that would care for infants and toddlers beyond the dental school and into a public health clinic where children already were being seen," Weber said. The result is a weekly dental clinic operated by UI staff and students for local families in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC).

National pediatric dentistry organizations recommend that children first see a dentist at about age one in order to prevent potentially serious tooth decay. Because children from low-income families are at greater risk for dental disease, early care is particularly important for them. However, lack of awareness and access to dental treatment keeps many of these children from getting the care they need, sometimes leading to expensive hospitalization.

Weber had studied dentistry for infants in her native Brazil, where much of what she learned was adapted from a pioneering program established at the UI in the 1970s by Arthur Nowak, D.D.S., and Stephen Goepferd, D.D.S., both professors of pediatric dentistry. Faculty expertise in the field was one of the factors that drew her to Iowa.

Her faculty advisor, Michael Kanellis, D.D.S., UI associate professor of pediatric dentistry, lent strong support to the project, and Weber began looking for a community site where a dental clinic could be established. She found the WIC clinic at the Johnson County Department of Public Health, which provides health screenings, education, referrals and vouchers for certain foods to pregnant women and young children.

"This is another way that we can assist families and help provide the best dental care possible," said Nadine Fisher, director of the WIC clinic.

Start-up support for the project came from a $5,000 grant awarded to Kanellis by the Pierre Fauchard Academy, a California nonprofit organization. The grant funded the purchase of a portable dental chair, supplies and equipment.

Since the clinic opened last September, Weber and her colleagues have seen more than 95 patients. All treatment is provided free of charge.

The clinic offers preventive care and minor restorative treatment for high-risk children and education for parents. "Helping parents teach their children good oral health habits early is much easier than trying to change their habits later," Weber said.

Children classified as medium- or high-risk for tooth decay are scheduled for return visits every three months. Clinic staff take every step possible to keep parents and children coming back, and also try to locate a local dentist for each child to see beginning at age three.

In addition to serving patients, the clinic complements UI dental students' education. Twelve fourth-year students have rotated through the clinic since its inception, and Weber hopes that the experience leaves them better prepared to treat infants and low-income families once they begin their careers.

The unique nature of the clinic also makes it a good site for research projects on oral health education and care for children and families. One current project blends research and clinical care, identifying families with high rates of Streptococcus mutans ­ a bacterium that causes tooth decay ­ and taking steps to reduce transmission from parents and siblings to younger children.

The bacteria project involves David Drake, Ph.D., UI associate professor of endodontics and investigator at the UI Dows Institute for Dental Research. Weber expresses gratitude to him and other UI faculty members from various disciplines, crediting them for much of the clinic's success.

Weber already has future developments for the clinic in mind. She and faculty at the College of Dentistry are developing an education program for pregnant women to give them an even earlier start toward providing good dental care for their children.

"I hope that this project will keep growing and that its philosophy will keep spreading," she said.