A Nunavut woman says her 12-year-old son lost 15 pounds while waiting to have one of his teeth removed this year.
The boy at Rankin Inlet was recently one of more than 1,000 children on the territory’s waiting list for dental surgery.
“He cried day and night, and he stopped eating,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, told the Canadian press.
“As a mother, watching your child in pain for months is a challenging experience.”
She said a community dentist told her in February that her son, Howard, had a tooth decay that had to be extracted. The staff numbed the boy’s mouth and prepared to remove the tooth, but he was too tense to stay still.
I recommend flying him to Winnipeg, where he can be sedated.
His mother said the referral was not completed. In May, another dentist at the Rankin Inlet Clinic attempted to remove the tooth, to no avail. He was referred to Winnipeg and sent home with antibiotics for the pain.
The woman said, “The hardest thing to hear from a 12-year-old is only when they say: Mom, this hurts so much. I’d rather die. I’m sick of the pain.”
The waiting list doubled during the pandemic
Ronald Kelly, director of oral health in Nunavut, said the waiting list for children needing dental surgery was about 500 before the COVID-19 pandemic.
After COVID-19 hit, and travel in the territory halted, it doubled.
There are three private dental clinics in Nunavut – two in Iqaluit and one new in Rankin Inlet. Dental teams fly to the other 23 communities in the region on a rotating schedule throughout the year. Between those scheduled visits, residents need to travel to receive specialized care.
The only hospital in the territory, in Iqaluit, is the only place where general anesthesia can be performed. Children who live in West Nunavut are also regularly sent to Churchill, Mann, for dental surgery.
In a typical week, Kelly said the hospital would see about 20 kids for dental surgery, most of them under five years old.
“During COVID, we did not have access to hospital services for these children.”
The region is back on schedule now that travel restrictions have been relaxed, but it faces a backlog. Kelly said extra weeks were being booked at Iqaluit and Churchill Children’s Hospitals to see the surgeons.
Tooth decay is common
The Inuit Oral Health Survey, conducted by Nunavut Tongavik from 2008 to 2009, found that 85 percent of Inuit children aged three to five years had one or more cavities. And about 97 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 17 have at least one tooth affected by cavities.
He cited language barriers, food insecurity, housing overcrowding, and lower access to health care compared to the rest of the country as factors negatively affecting Inuit health.
Nationally, the Canadian Dental Association said about 24 percent of children had at least one tooth in 2010.
A spokesperson for the association said waiting lists for general anesthesia can range from a week to a year across Canada.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected access to dentistry performed specifically in hospitals or surgical centers, as many staff diversion surgeries have been canceled to support individuals who have been in critical condition as a result of COVID-19.”
Five years ago, the Nunavut Department of Health created a dental program that specifically provides preventive services to children.
Kelly said that before the pandemic, the program helped shrink the waiting list.
“You cry a lot”
Elizabeth Callock said her two Bond Inlet children have been waiting a year for surgery. Her 15-year-old has multiple cavities and her three-year-old has a broken tooth.
Callock said her eldest was taking Tylenol to relieve her toothache, but that didn’t help.
“She was in so much pain,” Kluck said. “She cries a lot.” “I don’t know what to do when you’re really hurting.”
Last Monday, Howard’s mother said his tooth was finally removed at the new dental clinic in Rankin Inlet.
It no longer hurts.
“Howard is smiling again,” she said.