Eastern North Carolina is one of the most underserved areas of the state when it comes to access to dental professionals. Bertie County, in particular, has one of the lowest ratios of dentists-to-population with only one or two licenced dentists for 21,000 residents.
“That is primarily the reason we picked Bertie County,” said Dr. Wanda Wright, the Director of Dental Public Health at East Carolina University in Greenville. “It’s generally a low-income community, the rates of dental disease is higher than the statewide average, and they don’t have anywhere to go for their dental care.”
The ECU School of Dental Medicine recently received a $400,000 grant from The Duke Endowment to launch school-based programs that prioritize preventive care for children, which are particularly affected by oral health disparities. The Bertie County School-Based Oral Preventive Program will provide services like dental exams, x-rays, cleanings, sealants, and fluoride treatments for children at Aulander Elementary School, Colerain Elementary School, West Bertie Elementary School, Windsor Elementary School, and Bertie Middle School.
“We’re treating the children where they are so the parents don’t have to take off work to take the child to the dentist and we’re making sure the children are getting these preventive services early on,” said Wright.
Children from low-income families are more than twice as likely to have untreated tooth decay than children from higher income families. These types of dental problems can affect a child’s overall health as well as their achedemic performance. Wright said children with untreated tooth decay tend to have trouble eating, sleeping, and paying attention in school.
"Bertie County has a higher decay rate than most of the state. In 2015, I believe it was, there was a survey of kindergartners across North Carolina. 15% of kindgartners in North Carolina had untreated decay and in Bertie County, it was about 20% who had untreated decay."
While the focus of the program is to provide preventive services, students who require additional dental work are refered to the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s community service learning center in Ahoskie, which is about 30 miles away. The center provides education and hands-on experience for ECU dental students and postdoctoral residents with reduced rates to the public.