East Cleveland kindergarten teachers will be passing out gummy bears three times a day as part of the Healthy Bears for Healthy Teeth program sponsored by Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine. Researchers will test special gummy bears containing the anti-microbial sugar substitute xylitol to see if it reduces cavities in the first emerging permanent teeth.
Healthy Bears for Healthy Teeth is a research project under the direction of Suchitra Nelson, associate professor of dental medicine and researcher. She received a four-year, $1 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resource and Services Administration. Peter Milgrom, a researcher from the University of Washington, studies xylitol and is collaborating on the project with Nelson.
Nelson said she wants to see if the additional measure will decrease the number of cavities in small children and help other children who are at risk for dental health problems. She added that even with sealants, fluoride varnishes and oral health education, the number of cavities has not significantly decreased for children from low income homes and remains one of the leading health problems for these children.
Xylitol is a safe preventative agent approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It prevents tooth decay by creating an environment in the mouth that reduces acids and plaque that allow the streptococcus mutans bacteria to grow and flourish.
It is a sweetener that is not widely used in the United States, said Nelson. In Finland, a number of products from chewing gum and candy contain xylitol, and through public health campaigns, children and parents are encouraged to use those products to prevent tooth decay.
"Because children cannot chew gum in school, we decided to see if xylitol will work with sugar-free gummy bears," she said. The candy is being specially produced for the study by a California company.
The kindergarten students are being targeted because decayed baby teeth can infect newly erupting permanent teeth with the bacteria that causes cavities.
Nelson has been working closely with Myrna Corley, superintendent of East Cleveland Schools, to bring the program to the district's five elementary schools. The children should start to receive the gummy bears around mid-September.
In this study, 300 children will be recruited for the program this year and another 300 children next year. Half will receive the xylitol gummy bears while the other half will have the sugar-free bears without xylitol. Each group will participate under the supervision of the research project's outreach workers. The children's oral health will be tracked by the team of dental researchers during kindergarten, first and second grades.
Along with the gummy bears, the children will receive what are considered the current best oral health preventive practices: oral health education, toothbrushes and fluoride tooth paste, sealants when their first permanent teeth emerge and fluoride varnish on all teeth to prevent tooth decay.
Other Case co-investigators on this project are James Lalumandier, chair of community dentistry; Gerald Ferretti, chair of pediatric dentistry; and Kiet Ly and Charles Spiekerman from the University of Washington. Terrance Richardson is the study coordinator for the project.
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