Ben Romo: I’m joined today by Samuel Burg D.D.S., a local champion for children’s oral health. Dr. Sam practices in Santa Maria at Santa Maria Children’s Dentistry. He is past president of the Central Coast Dental Society.

Dr. Sam has been honored with the Santa Barbara County Kid Friendly Award and is a founding member of the Northern Santa Barbara County Dental Access Resource Team. He is an Oral Health Executive Committee member for Santa Barbara County and serves on the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County’s health board.

Dr. Sam, why have you invested so much effort into building a network of support for children and families in Santa Barbara County?

Samuel Burg: Oral health is completely connected to overall health. If children have toothaches, they cannot concentrate in school and miss days when in pain. Their nutrition and sleep are affected if they have tooth pain.

Tooth decay is almost entirely preventable, and I think it is a smart investment to address oral health before it creates further physical and academic problems. Prevention starts with knowledge about oral hygiene. The networks I have been a part of are critical in reaching out and providing the training and instruction in oral care to families.

I have always felt we should give back to our community. We had a free clinic once a year in our office beginning in 2000, serving 40 children from Santa Barbara County who had no type of dental coverage. Now that all children in the county are eligible for coverage, we no longer hold the clinics, but we remain committed to serving through visits to state preschools and Head Start facilities. We’ve seen some dramatic improvements because we’ve worked together as an oral health community.

BR: Do you have a “success story” that jumps out to you?

SB: The biggest success was getting the City of Santa Maria to add fluoride to the water in 2006. I have seen a major reduction in decay after getting fluoride in the Santa Maria water system and having pediatricians applying fluoride varnish. We have reduced the number of children having extensive decay by 70 percent. The numbers in local communities without fluoride in the water have not changed.

BR: That is an amazing reduction. What do you consider your biggest challenge?

Dr. Sam volunteers time doing a child’s screening for tooth decay.
Dr. Sam volunteers time doing a child’s screening for tooth decay. (Santa Maria Children’s Dentistry photo)

SB: The biggest challenge for our office is trying to treat all the children enrolled in Denti-Cal in our county. Due to low reimbursement fees, most dentists will not treat children under 5 years old with Denti-Cal insurance. This can lead to long waiting times for families trying to see the few providers who will work with this program.

BR: What is something people might find surprising about oral health?

SB: I think most people would be surprised that most cavities can be prevented by diet. Most people do not realize how bad fruit roll-ups, granola bars, raisins and dried fruit are for your teeth. Or how much sugar is in 100 percent fruit juice.

BR: Pretty popular foods with the preschool set. If a parent lets a child have one of these as a special treat, how can they reduce the likelihood of cavities or decay?

SB: Tooth decay is caused by sugars and starches in food being turned into acid by plaque bacteria. This acid then eats away at the enamel — the hard outer surface — of a tooth. Our saliva has minerals like calcium and phosphate and added fluoride in water and toothpaste. Both work to help tooth enamel repair itself from acid erosion.

If you or your child enjoy something sugary, meaning it produces a lot of acid, it’s important to try to minimize that acid contact on teeth. Brushing teeth shortly afterward helps. At a minimum, drink water. As an example, avoid letting your child drink milk or juice right before bedtime when the acid will be in contact all night.

BR: I’ve been known to floss at work, so I’m going to bring this article out the next time someone makes fun of me. What advice do you have for parents who struggle with teeth brushing time?

SB: You need to start when they are infants. Get your child used to you brushing by using gauze to wipe their gums and then brushing the first tooth that erupts. This should make it easier as they have more teeth erupt.

Sam Burg at 2½ in Castro Valley.
Sam Burg at 2½ in Castro Valley. (Burg family photo)

I like the Mouth Monsters website for tips on brushing as well as easy to understand oral health information for parents needing to find a provider, make decisions about care, or seeking to improve their child’s home oral care. Distraction, like making it a counting game or singing a silly song, can help as well. Mouth Monsters has some good advice for brushing teeth with children with special needs.

BR: What returns can our county expect to see from their investment in oral health?

SB: When a community invests in oral health, they will see an improvement in overall health for the community. By reducing decay and pain in children, we will have better school attendance.

An important component in oral health is healthy eating, which has positive benefits beyond reducing decay. I dream of the day when children only need cleanings and exams and have no decay.

BR: What originally drew you to dentistry?

SB: My brother is seven years older than me and is also a dentist. He started dental school when I was 14 and I decided I would also become a dentist. I have been practicing for 39 years.

BR: You’ve made a huge impact in Santa Maria and our entire county. What do you like to do when you’re not looking at teeth?

SB: I enjoy motorcycles, cars and snow skiing.

BR: Keep on smiling, Dr. Sam! Thank you for your dedication to our community’s children.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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