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An initiative aimed at improving the long-term health outcomes of young children in the Central Great Southern by improving their dental health commenced in March.

The Central Great Southern – Child Health Project (Dental Health and Food Security) program provides dental screening, preventive dental treatment and referrals for children aged 0-4 years of age.

The dental screening was undertaken by paediatric dental specialist, Dr Jilen Patel and dental students from The University of Western Australia; with two further visits scheduled this year.

During the inaugural visit, 183 children were screened at local day care centres, primary schools, playgrounds and community meeting places. For many children it was their first dental check.

Central Great Southern Early Years Partnership Local Working Party Co-Chair Jo Webb said good oral health can have a significant long term positive impact on the health and wellbeing of children.

“Locally, the rate of 0-4 year olds hospitalised for oral disease is 2.85 times higher than the State average and high rates of early childhood caries have been observed by people working with young children in our community,” Jo said.

“Conversely, none of our local dentists specialise in paediatric dental care. This program helps close the gap between local needs and available care.”

Jo said the first visit had earned wonderful feedback from local families, which is testament to the collaborative effort that has gone into creating a service that meets the unique needs of this community.

“Jilen’s enthusiasm and passion for this program has been pivotal. Not only has his passion made the program possible, his manner with the children made them and their families very comfortable during the screening process.”

“He was willing to see children as they played; on slides, on playground equipment; performing magic tricks to help put them at ease.”

Families were able to ask questions around dental health, tooth-brushing, nutrition and dental development.

The dental team is also trialling the use of tele-dentistry by taking photos of the teeth on a purpose-built app to help plan and coordinate treatment. It is hoped this will provide an effective method of early identification of dental issues.

The team addressed minor dental issues, such as applying fluoride treatments and sealing deep grooves in teeth at risk of developing decay.

At the next visit, the team will train local health staff and families in taking photos for ongoing review, which will help build local capacity and pave the way for the program to become a long-term, sustainable service.

The participating dental students also benefited from their involvement through gaining experience with the 0-4 age group, seeing a variety of dental health conditions, as well as gaining exposure to rural practice and the sense of community in country WA.

Rural Health West Deputy Chief Executive Officer Kelli Porter said many rural communities across Western Australia experienced issues accessing dental care.

“As with many other health professions, rural WA has a shortage of appropriately qualified dentists. However, unlike medicine, nursing and allied health, there are very few opportunities for dental students to gain exposure to working in a country town.”

“We are extremely pleased to be a partner in this initiative – not just for the benefit of the children and families, but also for the participating students who have gained invaluable practical and social experience in these wonderful communities,” Kelli said.

Rural Health West is working with Jilen and The University of Western Australia on creating more immersion opportunities for dental students to experience rural practice, with placements planned in Derby for April and Karratha in May.

The Central Great Southern – Child Health Project (Dental Health and Food Security) program has been made possible via the Early Years Partnership, a 10-year partnership between the State Government (Departments of Communities, Health and Education) and Minderoo Foundation, with funding primarily sourced from Minderoo Foundation and Rural Health West.

The program is supported by Badgebup Aboriginal Corporation, WA Country Health Service, A Smart Start Great Southern, Telethon Kids Institute, Amity Health and South West Aboriginal Medicine Service.

Acknowledgement of Country