Toothache Leads to Boy's Death

ByABC News
March 5, 2007, 4:45 PM

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.