Operation Smile Trains Local Doctors

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Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip, cleft palate, or both. People who have this genetic deformity are born with a split in their top lip, or an opening in the roof of their mouth.

Cleft lips and cleft palates often make it difficult or impossible to eat, speak, and smile. Moreover, in some places sufferers are shunned and rejected for their facial deformity.

In the developing world, it is difficult for people with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate to get surgery because of the cost, ever-growing waiting list, and in the case of babies, lack of adequate facilities which can properly apply anesthesia.

Approximately 1/700 children are born with a cleft lip and/or a cleft palate. More people remain untreated in the developing countries where surgeons either lack the time or ability to treat less life-threatening conditions like that of a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.

This is especially dangerous for new babies, for whom a cleft lip or cleft palate can become life-threatening without treatment.

In the developed world, a baby born with a cleft lip or cleft palate will undergo surgery within the first year of life. “Babies here in Ireland are operated on at 3 months,” said Dr. David Orr, a consultant pediatric plastic surgeon at Our Lady’s Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and the Chairman of Operation Smile.

But in the developing world, facilities are often not up to the standards necessary to operate on babies.  Anesthesia needs to be provided in a safe surgical environment, especially when the patient is a baby.

Operation Smile helps patients in the developing world suffering from a cleft palate and/or cleft lips. This charitable organization sends volunteer doctors to developing countries to provide reconstructive surgery for children born with facial deformities.

Operation Smile’s general practice is to send in a team of medical professionals for two weeks. The team sets up a surgical environment with medical equipment that is dispatched from Operation Smile’s central hub in Virginia, U.S.

Then the team interviews hundreds of local people who need cleft palate and/or cleft lip. The aim is to treat as many patients as possible before the two weeks are up, while also prioritizing the patients in the most need of treatment. But the team often travels home with the frustrating knowledge that many untreated cases were left-behind.

Operation Smile recently adopted a new strategy that will hopefully decrease the large backlog of untreated cases. Volunteer doctors have begun to teach local doctors how to treat cleft palate and cleft lip patients, so that patients can be treated even after the Operation Smile team leaves.

The transported medical equipment is now being set up permanently in local hospitals. Volunteer doctors use the equipment to teach local surgeons how to operate on cleft lips and palates with safely applied anesthetics.

Dr. Orr is in the process of teaching surgeons based in Jimma, Ethiopia. Currently, the local hospital is basic and suffers from a lack of local qualified staff.

“There [are]just three qualified surgeons to look after 5 to 7 million people. And that is for all surgeries, not just cleft lips and palates. It is a phenomenal unmet need,” said Dr. Orr.

Operation Smile hopes that its new system will provide more qualified local staff in hospitals in developing countries, and that the newly educated local doctors will spread their knowledge to other regions in need.

– Kasey Beduhn

Source: Old Moore’s Almanac
Photo: Operation Smile

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