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Don't just hand out toothbrushes: How a toothbrush tribute helped change children's oral health

Sept. 19, 2016
JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, describes how a "toothbrush tribute" helped change pediatric oral health.

By JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, PhD

At the International Symposium on Dental Hygiene (ISDH) sponsored by the International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH), held in Basel, Switzerland, this past June, I received the most amazing gift. During the closing ceremonies, colleagues Deb Astroth and Ann Spolarich surprised me as president of the organization with a "toothbrush tribute." Allow me to explain.

I launched my term as president of the IFDH in 2013 announcing a new program called "Every Child Has a Toothbrush." This program is designed to teach children how to use a toothbrush effectively as a means to prevent childhood caries. The program offers small grants to dental hygienists to serve communities in need and has been sponsored by Procter & Gamble and Premier. Dental hygienists assess a target group of children and their ability to brush. They are taught to use a toothbrush and may be offered other services such as sealants and fluoride varnish treatments. The program is designed so that the hygienist returns to the same community after three months to reassess the children to determine how effective they are with their brushing techniques, reinforce proper techniques, and provide a new toothbrush. Again, the focus is on caries prevention. For more information about this program, or to apply for one of the small grants, visit ifdh.org.

Back to the story about the toothbrush tribute. Ann and Deb decided to send a message to colleagues and friends asking them to implement "Every Child Has a Toothbrush" on their own, sending photos and a note as a way to celebrate my presidency. A photo album was created depicting their stories. They were asked to keep this a surprise and not to post what they were doing on social media. To my surprise and great joy, 14,647 toothbrushes were distributed around the world! This included the United States, Canada, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Uganda. Some of the dental hygienists who wrote notes indicated that they would continue the programs on an annual basis. What truly astonished me was that I had seen almost every one of these dear individuals at meetings within the last few weeks and no one had said a word!

Well, you might be thinking that was a nice gift, but why is she wasting a column talking about a toothbrush tribute? I had to share this with you because worldwide 60%-90% of children have dental caries, according to the World Health Organization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, caries in children in the United States is equally tragic. Consider the following statistics:

  • "About one of five (20%) children aged five to 11 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth."1
  • "One of seven (13%) adolescents aged 12 to 19 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth."1
  • "The percentage of children and adolescents aged five to 19 years with untreated tooth decay is twice as high for those from low-income families (25%) compared with children from higher-income households (11%)."1

At some point we have to join forces and dramatically change this picture. The IFDH has started a social responsibility call-to-action campaign to address childhood caries and other preventable oral health diseases. We all can't embrace every volunteer activity, but certainly we can start by teaching tooth brushing (instead of just handing them out) to children. Perhaps this program will speak to you and you will consider implementing it this year either as a community program, part of a dental hygiene school program, or a constituent or component program. You can do this on your own or apply for a grant through the IFDH. Either way, we are the prevention oral health specialists who can change the lives of children (and adults) who suffer needlessly from dental caries. Let's start in September and make this campaign go forward until the next symposium. When you implement your programs, submit them to the community page on the IFDH website, too, so we can track the outcomes. Let's see firsthand the power of our prevention! RDH


1. Children's Oral Health. CDC website. http://www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/children_adults/child.htm#1. Updated November 10, 2014. Accessed July 26, 2016.

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.