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Service With A Smile

As a child, Hiliana Murillo never went to the dentist. There was no need to go, her mother would say, unless something was wrong.

But as a single working mother, Murillo began to notice something wrong with the children's teeth in her Los Angeles neighborhood.

"My friend's son, he's almost 3, but he has silver teeth," Murillo said. "I got so scared. I said, ‘This is not going to happen to my daughter.'"

Murillo and her 2-year-old daughter, Valentina, found help at the Westside Children's Center Early Head Start Program, where she would get professional dental care every six months as part of the Virtual Dental Home Project that incorporates telehealth technology.

Using a portable dental chair, a laptop computer, a digital camera and a handheld X-ray machine, a specially trained dental hygienist provides oral health screenings to underserved children like Valentina at schools and community centers. Information about the child's oral health is uploaded to an office-based dentist who makes a diagnosis and develops a treatment plan.

This innovative oral health care delivery system was created by the Pacific Center for Special Care at the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry.

So far, more than 450 dental screenings have been provided to low-income and special needs children in Los Angeles County's Early Head Start and Head Start programs associated with Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, Volunteers of America and Westside Children's Center, thanks to a $1 million grant from First 5 LA.

"We're committed to supporting programs that use technology to improve children's lives," said First 5 LA program officer Kaya Tith.

Several years ago, First 5 LA commissioned a study on children's dental health that revealed an epidemic of tooth decay among young children living in L.A. County's poorest communities, Tith said.

According to the study, about 72 percent of youngsters under age 5 had untreated cavities. This was more than double the national average among youngsters in comparable populations.

Even when they want to see a dentist, many underserved children in L.A. County often have to wait extended periods of time.

"The average wait time for children to see a dentist is 34 days to several months," said Jenny Kattlove, director of Strategic Health Initiatives at Children's Partnership.

Transportation problems and conflicts with work prevent many low-income parents from traveling to the dentist.

In Valentina's case, her mother was able to join her at the Westside Children's Center, where dental hygienist Mireya Rodriguez examined her gums, took photos of her mouth and cleaned her teeth.

"I was so happy when I learned there was a dentist at the school because sometimes there's not time to see one on my own," said Murillo, who works as a housekeeper.

And Valentina? She passed her dental exam with flying colors.

And with, of course, a big, beautiful smile.

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