Michael Jai White: Actor, Fighter, HIV Educator

(BlackDoctor.org) — “I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people on Earth,” says Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Michael Jai (pronounced “Jye”) White, one of Hollywood’s most respected actors (best known for his high-profile roles in Black Dynamite, The Dark Knight and Spawn).

But as a teen, he garnered a reputation for being a much-feared street fighter. “I hung precariously out of line when I was a kid,” he says. “I could have gone in another direction had it not been for some intervention from positive role models at the right time. And the blessings that I have now, I have to share them.”

It is why the 44-year-old former middle-school teacher has long been active in causes involving African American youths, most related to diabetes and obesity prevention–and why he is getting more active in the HIV/AIDS movement.

“Being a former schoolteacher, I do a lot of work with at-risk kids and work on motivating them to go get education and prosper from that point on,” says White, who found his voice as an actor though his work as an educator.

He concedes that his platform as a performer enables him to “teach truth” to a wider audience. “And I think that with something like the HIV/AIDS movement that can use my help, I can’t think of anything else more worthy of my time.”

White knows firsthand the power that celebrities can have in spurring action among young people: Former NBA star Magic Johnson first inspired him to get tested for HIV/AIDS. “That hit home,” says White, “and I thought, if he can contract the virus, so can I. That got me into the clinic.”

Like many people at that time, White believed that “the high-risk groups for AIDS were homosexual men and intravenous drug users,” he admits. “In fact, I had gotten some false advice early on from a physician who actually said, ‘You’re a straight man, and you can’t get it unless you’re a gay man or a drug user,’ so I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’m cool.’ That was until Magic Johnson made that announcement.”

White says that he was particularly moved by the campaign message “Greater Than AIDS” because he feels there have been generations of people believing that they are “less than.” “We call ourselves by names that are less than who we are,” says White, who eventually channeled the fighting spirit of his youth into martial arts: He holds black belts in shotokan, ITF tae kwon do, tang soo do and four other karate styles. “I feel that there are people in our communities who really don’t feel that they deserve clean bills of health. I really try to encourage Black people to respect their bodies and work out. I live as an example of someone who believes in physical fitness and being healthy.”

Because, he adds, “we’re descendants of the strongest of the strong, and I believe that’s something to be very proud of. We are worthy of so, so much.”

Dentists Report Rise In Preschoolers With Cavities

dentistry for childrenDentists are now seeing so many preschoolers with cavities and even severe tooth decay (6 to 10 cavities or more) that there’s been “a huge increase” in little kids who need general anesthesia for dental procedures, including tooth extractions, crowns and even root canals.

Yet with the right care, rotten teeth—and having to send two-year-olds to the hospital for costly and painful dental surgery—are largely preventable. What’s behind this scary trend?

Soaring Rates of Tooth Decay in 2 to 5 Year Olds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded an alarm five years ago by reporting the first rise in 40 years of kids with cavities in their baby teeth. The largest spike was found among 2 to 5 year olds. In that study, the CDC reported that 28 percent of kids in that age group—of all income levels—had cavities, compared to 24 percent in a study conducted between 1988 and 1994.

Overall, 42 percent of kids ages 2 to 11 had cavities in their primary teeth, and there was also a significant jump in the number of cavities (or fillings) per child. What’s more, many of the kids had untreated decay, which can be extremely dangerous. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse, according to pediatric dentists around the US.

A Dangerous, Overlooked Health Threat

Featured in original Times article, Melody and Mathew Koester didn’t worry about their son Devon’s oral health until Melody noticed that that the then 18-month-old had discolored teeth. ““I had a lot on my mind, and brushing his teeth was an extra thing I didn’t think about at night.”

Dentists report that some parents don’t brush their toddlers’ teeth because their kids get fussy or cry. But tooth-brushing twice a day can spare preschoolers the much worse pain of the dentist’s drill. For Devon, his parents’ mistake resulted in a trip to the OR, as The New York Times reports:

“In the surgical wing of the Center for Pediatric Dentistry at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Devon Koester, 2 ½ years old, was resting last month in his mother’s arms as an anesthesiologist held a bubble-gum-scented mask over his face to put him under. The doctors then took X-rays, which showed that 11 of his 20 baby teeth had cavities. Then his pediatric dentist extracted two incisors, performed a root canal on a molar, and gave the rest fillings and crowns.”

A Perfect Storm of Cavity Risks

Parents who don’t brush their toddlers’ teeth are just one reason for the cavity epidemic. Preschoolers are also grazing on sugary snacks more than they used to, while babies and toddlers are often put to bed with bottles of fruit juice or milk, a recipe for tooth decay that can lead to a condition called “bottle mouth,” in which sugars from juice or milk eat away at the enamel of the teeth, causing discolored, pitted, or pocked teeth. Severe cases of bottle mouth can lead to cavities or extractions of rotten baby teeth.

Furthermore, bottled water is more popular than ever, and parents are now feeding it to their kids instead of opting for fluoridated tap water that can help defend against cavities.

How Serious Are Babies’ Cavities?

While some parents don’t think it matters if kids get cavities in their baby teeth, decay can lead to serious complications in children who haven’t yet gotten their permanent teeth, including tooth abscesses, tooth loss, chewing problems, severe pain, and life-threatening infections.

It’s possible, though rare, for children to die from untreated dental infections, as the tragic case of Deamonte Driver illustrates. Last year, the 12-year-old died after an infection from a decayed molar spread to his brain.

What Are the Best Way To Prevent Childhood Cavities?

Dental care should begin even before a baby’s first tooth emerges. Dentists recommend wiping your baby’s gums with a damp washcloth to clean off cavity-causing bacteria.

After the baby has one or more teeth, brush them with a soft child’s toothbrush  or wipe them with a gauze pad. The American Dental Association recommends taking kids for their first dental visit at age one. The dentist can instruct you on the best brushing and flossing methods (start flossing as soon as your child has at least 2 teeth that touch.)