A faculty member makes it her mission to provide early preventative dental care to all children-regardless of ability or income.
Tradition would say that children should see a dentist for the first time at age 3, when they're old enough to understand the experience.
But early in her dental training in her native Brazil, Karin Weber-Gasparoni observed that seeing children early in life-ideally in the first year-made a striking difference in preventing dental decay and other problems.
The assistant professor of pediatric dentistry in the University of Iowa College of Dentistry had witnessed her own daughter's struggle with dental issues due to a rare syndrome that put her at higher risk for decay. Weber-Gasparoni never wanted to see another child go through the difficult procedure her daughter experienced at 4 years old.
So Weber-Gasparoni has spent much of her career making sure that all young children-regardless of ability or income-get the early preventative dental care they need.
Weber-Gasparoni first saw the importance of early dental care while working in a state-run clinic in Brazil that treated young, low-income children for free.
In the clinic, "we would see kids from infants to 5 years old, and the prevention was amazing," she says. "When we see children for the first time at age 3 or later, we're already pulling out teeth or doing root canals. It's much better to see kids very early in life."
Her mentor at the clinic, Luis Walter, urged her to pursue further studies at The University of Iowa, which pioneered the philosophy of treating children within the first 12 months of life, a way of thinking that had inspired the successful clinics in Brazil and around South America.
At Iowa, Weber-Gasparoni was eager to work with the College of Dentistry's Infant Oral Health Program, which provided preventative care to young children-much like the clinic where she worked in Brazil.
But she was disappointed when she saw that the program-which treated patients in the Dental Building on campus-was not seeing the high-risk children most likely to develop early-childhood caries, a potentially painful, serious, and debilitating disease that can affect young children.
"The problem was that poor, high-risk kids didn't come to us for prevention. They came to us when there was a problem or they were in pain," she says. "The philosophy was fantastic, but the logistics of the program weren't working."
So Weber-Gasparoni-as a project for her master's degree in dental public health-suggested that the college bring the clinic into the community.
"I went to my advisor, Michael Kanellis, and I said, 'I think the Infant Oral Health Program would work if we go after the kids in a place where they are already being seen for other health care services. If we wait for them to come to us, they're not going to come.'"
Her advisor suggested the Johnson County Women Infant Care (WIC) clinic, which provides health care to low-income women and young children. The WIC clinic director, Nadine Fisher, was enthusiastic about the idea of partnering with the College of Dentistry, and a collaboration began that continues 10 years later.
"You have to find the high-risk children," Weber-Gasparoni says. "If you want to help them, you have to take the initiative to take it a step further, to leave your office and go out and find them."
The first three years, Weber-Gasparoni provided the Infant Oral Health Clinic services herself: oral screenings, fluoride treatments, simple fillings, and preventative education. By the program's third year, the Infant Oral Health Clinic became a requirement for seniors in the dental college. Today, two students work at the clinic once a week under the supervision of a resident.
The program has served more than 1,300 children in the past 10 years, and Weber-Gasparoni hopes an expansion of the WIC clinic will lead to more space for dental students to see more patients in the future.
"I'm proud that the department took the initiative to say, 'We'll help you. What do you need? If you have the idea and you want to do it, just go and do it,'" Weber-Gasparoni says.
Weber-Gasparoni directs the WIC clinic these days, while pursuing her diverse research, teaching, outreach, and clinical interests. She is conducting research on the psychological theory of self-determination, testing whether a motivational video shown to WIC clinic parents is an effective prevention tool.
In her clinical work, she sees children from 0 to 18 years old, including children with special health care needs-for whom she has a special affinity.
"Special health-care-needs kids have so many things going against them that you want to help them," she says. "And the parents are so overwhelmed with medical and educational needs that dentistry goes to the bottom of the list. For me, it's a way to give back to all the people who have helped my own daughter."
And she's often using her creativity to find ways to bring education and prevention into the community, developing videos, flip-charts, and brochures to reach diverse populations in many different settings.
"I love what I do and I love the people I work with," she says. "More than anything, I love to serve people. I feel like I'm giving kids a good start, a chance to prevent caries, a chance to have a good future."
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
July 30, 2007