March 5, 2007— -- A simple toothache can be fatal.
That is the sobering message a 12-year-old Maryland boy left when, after his dental problems went untreated, he succumbed to a severe brain infection.
Deamonte Driver's life could have been spared if his infected tooth was simply removed -- a procedure costing just $80.
However, the Driver family faced obstacles with Medicaid, poverty, and access to resources, resulting in an easily preventable health problem turning deadly.
In the end, Driver endured two surgeries and weeks of hospital care totaling about $250,000 in medical bills.
Sadly, it was too late to save the boy, and he passed away on Feb. 25.
But Deamonte Driver has become much more than just a tragic death. His story underscores the growing need in this wealthy nation to provide adequate dental care to our nation's children.
"Unfortunately, this is more common than we'd like it to be," says Sally Cram, a practicing periodontist in the Washington, DC area. "A lot of children don't get dental care."
In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control cites tooth decay as one of the most common chronic infectious diseases among U.S. children.
By the age of 11, approximately half of children have decay, and by the age of 19, tooth decay in the permanent teeth affects about 68 percent of adolescents.
For children in low-income families, like the Drivers, there is nearly twice the risk for untreated tooth decay.
"Among children, dental services are the most needed service that they do not receive," says Judith Lave, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburg, PA.
"I think it is probably the least covered of our health benefits across the nation," she adds.
While this lack of care is a known problem, there are a number of issues that stand in the way.
"The dentist doesn't break even," says Cram.
In fact, experts say the low rates Medicaid offers to cover dental services are less than what it costs the doctor to do the actual treatment.
Additionally, state Medicaid programs provide less than satisfactory resources for patients seeking dental care.
It often happens that "you have the benefits, and can't find a dentist to give you care," says Lave.
In Cram's experience, when she and the D.C. Dental Society sought out the names of dentists providing to Medicaid patients, "they couldn't provide the resources to us.
"How can they provide it to patients?" she asks.
The problem with care extends further than bureaucracy, however.
"I think that, for the general public, dental care is lower down on their list of important issues," says Lave.
People seem to think "teeth are not a big deal," says Cram.
But it's not just about your mouth. "Infections in your teeth and mouth can lead to more problems," she points out.
When a cavity goes untreated for months or years, the decay eats into the center of the tooth, and eventually enters the nerves and blood vessels.
From there, bacteria get into the blood stream and can travel virtually anywhere.
By taking advantage of basic preventative services -- like cleanings and filling cavities -- people can drastically reduce their chances for severe dental disease.
And with the benefit of Medicaid funding, a tremendous amount of budget funds could be saved in the long run.
Across the board, education on the benefits of prevention is the most important that can be done.
"It's sad that a child has to die for people to wake up," says Cram. "We need to stop putting our heads in the stand and start working together -- it takes education to help."