In recent years, the relationship between oral health and overall wellness has teetered on the edge of public awareness. Now, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is launching an initiative aimed at making it a top priority. Eight HHS agencies, including the Office of Minority Health, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Surgeon General, are collaborating to support and expand oral health education and research. In particular, they hope to make oral health care services more widely available to underserved communities. Racial and ethnic minorities continue to be disproportionately affected by oral disease, and a significant facet of the initiative is working toward eliminating these disparities.

In April, Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Howard Koh addressed the crowd at the National Oral Health Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, introducing them to the effort and its overall theme: Oral Health is Integral to Overall Health. Dr. Koh called the deficiencies in oral hygiene a “silent epidemic,” noting that 53 million people in the United States currently have untreated decay in their permanent teeth. Working with Dr. Koh in leading the initiative is Dr. Mary Wakefield, the Administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, in conjunction with the U.S. Public Health Service Oral Health Coordinating Committee.

Initiative goals and activities include creating campaigns that promote oral health and disease prevention and supporting oral health care professionals. Among individual agencies, the Indian Health Service will strengthen its Early Childhood Caries initiative, including monitoring childhood dental health through community health services and programs like Head Start. The Office of Minority Health plans to offer cultural competency training modules for dental health professionals, which will be available online. (The National Center for Research Resources will also provide Web-based tools for researchers.) And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to keep track of the overall state of oral health in the United States over the next few years, including the pervasiveness of oral diseases and patterns in dental health behavior. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Office of Women’s Health, and the Health Resources and Services Administration round out the team of collaborators, and each has their own contribution to the initiative.

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The foundation of the effort is education, and program coordinators believe that by educating the masses regarding the importance of good oral hygiene and establishing healthy habits at a young age, they can stem the prevalence of tooth decay and oral diseases.

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