Poor Oral Health Remains Major Problem Among American Indian Tribes

By Leah Martinez, Delta Dental

The Navajo Nation is the largest tribal group, and indeed, the largest reservation by land mass in the United States at 25,000 square miles. The reservation occupies the historic “Four Corners” region where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah all meet. This vast land is challenged with many obstacles and disparities. One particularly disturbing finding creates a lifelong health divide for Navajo children. They have poorer oral health. A new study from the University of Colorado shows that it remains a major problem.  Preschool-age Navajo children show rates of untreated decay than are 3 to 4 times higher than their peers.

While the percentage of Navajo children with untreated tooth decay appears to have declined overall in the past decade, down from 82.9 percent in 1999, it’s still extremely high. The study is particularly concerning to Arizona, as our state has many urban and rural Native American communities. In fact, Arizona is home to 22 Federally recognized Indian tribes. Additionally, the city of Phoenix is home to more than 43,700 Tribal members, making it the U.S. city with the third highest number of Native Americans.

Published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, the study looked at a large and broad group of 981 children enrolled in Head Start. The study showed that 69.5 percent of Navajo children have untreated tooth decay which is extremely high when compared to the 20.48 percent to the national average among all other racial and ethnic groups.

There are multiple factors contributing to this severe rate of dental decay in young Navajo children including the physical and social environments, health behaviors and access to dental services.  Access to services is difficult as the Navajo Nation only has 22 dental clinics for its 225,639 residents, making its dentist-to-patient ratio the lowest in the country. The lack of public transportation also plays a key role in many rural and isolated areas.

The study suggests that a multi-prong approach to reducing dental disease for Navajo children could include effective preventive services paired with culturally appropriate oral health instruction and easier access to dental care.

Download the full study here: RC2BaselinePaper (1)