Give Kids a Smile Day is one time of year when visiting the dentist becomes a party – complete with costumes, games and oral health giveaways, like flavored floss. The nationwide event, sponsored by the American Dental Association since 2002, encourages dentists throughout the country to provide screenings and oral health education to underserved children.

At Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in Newark, the state’s largest oral health care provider for adults and children, dental students dress like tooth fairies and screen hundreds of Essex County school children. They also apply preventive sealants to ward off cavities.

Despite the carnival-like atmosphere, their mission is serious. Dental decay is the most prevalent disease among children – five times as common as asthma.

According to the Pew Research Center, the impact on low-income children is especially severe. In 2014, more than 18 million went without dental care, including routine exams, often because their families couldn’t afford it.

At Rutgers School of Dental Medicine clinics, student doctors and faculty see children in excruciating pain because of cavities and tooth infections. Many wind up in emergency rooms because they don’t have access to affordable dental care.

A high percentage of patients at the school – which received 125,000 patient visits in 2016 – have Medicaid insurance, which most private dentists don’t accept. The school is considered New Jersey’s “safety net” provider.

On Give Kids a Smile Day, faculty and students work to lower that risk and help keep local children cavity-free.

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