photo by the canadian press

‘Hurts so much:’ Over 1,000 Nunavut children on wait-list for dental surgery

IQALUIT, Nunavut — A Nunavut woman says her 12-year-old son lost 15 pounds while waiting to have a tooth removed this year.

The boy in 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, he stopped eating,” the woman, who did not want to be identified, told The Canadian Press.

“As a mother, watching your child in pain for months is such a difficult experience.”

She said a dentist in the community told her in February that her son, Howard, had a decayed tooth that needed to be extracted. Staff numbed the boy’s mouth and prepared to remove the tooth, but he was too nervous and couldn’t stay still.

It was recommended he be flown to Winnipeg, where he could be sedated.

But the referral wasn’t completed, his mother said. In May, another dentist at the Rankin Inlet clinic tried unsuccessfully to remove the tooth. A referral was made to Winnipeg and he was sent home with antibiotics for the pain.

“The most difficult thing to hear from a child who is only 12-years-old is when they say, ‘Mom, it hurts so much. I would rather die. I am tired of hurting,’” said the woman.

Ronald Kelly, Nunavut’s director of oral health, said the waiting list for children needing dental surgery was at 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 a new one in Rankin Inlet. Dental teams fly into the territory’s other 23 communities on a rotating schedule throughout the year. Between those scheduled visits, residents need to travel to receive specialist care.

The territory’s only hospital, in Iqaluit, is the sole place where general anesthesia can be given. Children living in western Nunavut are also regularly sent to Churchill, Man., for dental surgery.

In a typical week, Kelly said the hospital would see about 20 kids for dental surgery, most of them younger than five.

“During COVID, we had access to virtually no hospital services for those kids.”

The territory is back on schedule now that travel restrictions have eased, but it faces a backlog. Additional weekshave been booked at the hospitals in Iqaluit and Churchill for kids to see surgeons, Kelly said.

The Inuit Oral Health survey, conducted by Nunavut Tunngavik in 2008 to 2009, found 85 per cent of Inuit children aged three to five had had one or more cavities. And about 97 per cent of those aged 12 to 17 had at least one tooth affected by decay.

It pointed to language barriers, food insecurity, overcrowded housing and lower access to health care than the rest of the country as factors that negatively affect Inuit health.

Nationally, the Canadian Dental Association said about 24 per cent of children had at least one decayed tooth in 2010.

A spokesperson for the association said wait-lists for general anesthetic can range from one week to one year across Canada.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected access to dentistry that is particularly performed in hospital or surgical centres, as many surgeries were cancelled to divert staff to support individuals who were critically ill as a result of COVID-19.”

Five years ago, Nunavut’s health department created a dental program that provides preventive services specifically for children.

Before the pandemic, Kelly said, the program helped shrink the waiting list.

Elisapee Kalluk said her two children in Pond Inlet have been waiting a year for surgery. Her 15-year-old has multiple cavities and her three-year-old has a broken tooth.

Kalluk said her oldest was taking Tylenol to dull her tooth pain, but it didn’t help.

“She’s been in so much pain. She cries often” Kalluk said.

“I don’t know what to do when she’s really in pain.”

On Monday, Howard’s mother said his tooth was finally removed at the new dental clinic in Rankin Inlet.

He’s no longer hurting.

“Howard is smiling again,” she said.