SINGAPORE - It is never too early to start preventing tooth decay, the National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS) said.
To drive home the message, it launched a preventive oral health programme in 2010 aimed at infants aged up to 18 months old and their parents.
Its youngest patient so far is a week old, with one tooth and, thankfully, no caries.
It is possible for children to have teeth as soon as they are born, said Dr Tan Wee Kiat, the head of the paediatric dentistry unit at the department of restorative dentistry at NDCS.
And tooth decay can occur once the first tooth erupts, she said.
At the daily clinic, held at the NDCS in Outram Road, the infant is given a thorough oral examination and his parents or caregivers are taught how to prevent tooth decay from happening.
An added incentive is that parents or caregivers also undergo a visual screening for tooth decay.
Those found to have tooth decay or poor oral health are advised to go for a dental check-up.
There is good reason for checking caregivers too, said Dr Tan, as evidence has emerged in the last five years to show that early childhood caries is an infectious disease, caused mainly by bacteria called Streptococcus mutans.
Parents or caregivers who have high levels of this bacteria in their saliva are more likely to infect their infants, for instance, through sharing food and utensils.
The earlier the caregiver infects the child with Streptococcus mutans, the higher the child's risk of developing early childhood caries.
The clinic now sees about 20 to 30 infants a month.
Parents whose children are referred to the clinic by polyclinics pay a special rate of $70 for the visit while those who make an appointment for their children may have to pay around $120.
Last December, the centre embarked on a two-year study to find out how effective the infant oral health clinic is in preventing caries in infants.
It hopes to recruit 171 infants and children over the next six to eight months.
It will follow up on the infants in this pool who are aged up to 18 months every six months for two years.
The risk of caries in this group will be compared against the rest of the children, toddlers aged two to 31/2 years old, who will form the control group.
Ms Wendy Ong, 29, a stay-at-home mother, signed up her 15-month-old son, Jerome Tang (below), for the study recently after she heard about it from a friend.
Prior to that, she had not taken her only child to see the dentist, though he cut his first tooth at 10 months. A couple of months ago, she became concerned when she found some stains on the back of two of his front teeth.
She decided not to pursue the matter when a couple of friends told her their children had the same stains and they seemed harmless.
She said: "Jerome had only three teeth then. I thought I should wait until he had more or if he complained of pain before I took him to the dentist."
The dental surgeon at NDCS told her that the stains on her son's teeth were tartar, or hard calcified deposit that forms on the teeth and can contribute to their decay. The tartar was due to the lack of brushing.
The dental surgeon advised Ms Ong to brush his teeth with a washcloth or preferably a toothbrush with a smear of fluoride toothpaste. She does this now twice a day. She has also stopped sharing food with him.
She said: "I now realise that tooth decay in children can happen as a result of germs we pass to them."
A child of the target ages in the study who has at least one tooth and has not seen a dentist can join the study.
For more information, call 6327-5063 or visit www.ndc.com.sg.
Children who take part in this study will receive free dental examination and their parents will be given free oral health counselling. Parents will also be reimbursed for their participation.
For more information on the infant oral health clinic at NDCS, call 6327-5063.
Dental treatment for those aged 16 and below is also available at the National University Hospital Dental Centre.
Call 6772-4921 to make an appointment. The School Dental Centre in Health Promotion Board offers basic dental treatment for those aged 18 and below.
To make a dental appointment, call 6435-3782, e-mail HPB_Dental_Counter@hpb.gov.sg or do so online via www.hpb.gov.sg.
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