Your Health

Putting a healthy smile on the faces of newcomer children

Young boy holding a toothbrush, while sitting in a chair at the dentist's.
Photo of Dr. Bob Schroth. DR. ROBERT SCHROTH
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, April 28, 2017

April is oral health month, the perfect time to celebrate your dental health.

Unfortunately, many Manitobans face oral health challenges, including those with limited incomes, those living in rural and remote regions, and Canadian Indigenous peoples.

Another group now recognized as having considerable dental needs are newcomers to Canada. This is especially true for young refugee children.

A considerable proportion of these children are refugees who have come to Canada never having experienced any past dental care and present with dental problems, predominantly caries (tooth decay).

Every week in my part-time clinical practice at Access Downtown and Mount Carmel Clinic, I care for children presenting with advanced tooth decay.

These children often require fillings and extractions and preventive care like cleanings and topical fluoride treatments. Caring for this population is rewarding, but comes with some challenges, including their unfamiliarity with the dental care system, lack of finances, and language barriers.

The Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) provides some emergency dental care for children and adults. And, fortunately, there are several community-based dental clinics that provide dental services at reduced cost. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s Language Access interpreters also provide an essential role, making dental visits for families without English language skills easier.

While tooth decay is a preventable disease, there is growing evidence that newcomer children have higher rates of early childhood tooth decay and lower rates of dental visits than Canadian born children do.

A recent survey revealed that tooth decay is very common among refugee and immigrant children new to Winnipeg, with about 45.5 per cent having early childhood tooth decay, and nearly one in three having a more severe form of tooth decay.

The Healthy Smile Happy Child (HSHC) initiative was established by a partnership of agencies, including the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the University of Manitoba to promote early childhood oral health and prevent tooth decay in young children. In 2015, the initiative recognized the oral health needs of young newcomer children and developed the Caring for Children’s Teeth Newcomer Resource, which can be found at

While this resource was specifically developed for newcomers with minimal or no English literacy, the oral health messages are applicable to all children and families in Manitoba.

The key messages include:

1) Look in your child’s mouth for signs of tooth decay. Lift your child’s lip regularly to see if the teeth are healthy and clean.

2) Brush your child’s teeth two times every day (morning and bedtime). Children under three years of age should use a grain of rice sized amount of fluoride toothpaste while children three years and older can use a green pea size of fluoride toothpaste.

3) Eat food that is good for your teeth. Limit the amount of unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks.

4) Start taking your child to the dentist before they are one-year-old.

5) Like your smile. Baby teeth are important and contribute to overall health and well-being for children.

Many refugees and newcomers are cared for by dentists in private practice. However, there are a number of community-based dental clinics within Winnipeg that provide essential dental care to these families. Information on these clinics can be found in the Region’s Oral Health Program’s resource Where To Go For Dental Care In Your Community, which can be found at

These clinics include:

  • Access Downtown, 640 Main Street (204-940-3816).
  • Deer Lodge Centre Dental Clinic, 2109 Portage Avenue (204-831-2157).
  • Mount Carmel Clinic, 886 Main Street (204-586-1659).
  • SMILE plus program at Machray School, 320 Mountain Avenue (204-940-2090).

Establishing dental homes for newcomers to Canada is a great way to ensure refugee children receive needed treatment and preventive care that will set them on a foundation for a lifetime of good oral health.

Dr. Robert Schroth is an associate professor and clinician scientist at the University of Manitoba and the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. He also maintains a part-time clinical practice at Mount Carmel Clinic and Access Downtown. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, April 28, 2017.


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