SEATTLE — Confidence is a characteristic that marks many successful people. Yet confidence can be eroded by physical birth defects, such as cleft lips and cleft palates. This specific birth defect can be seen worldwide, but it is quite problematic when it presents in children living in poverty.
In the United States, parents of a child born with a cleft lip and/or palate can expect medical care almost immediately with a surgical plan in place to correct the issue. But for children in developing countries, access to medical care, specifically safe and timely surgeries, is not the normal situation. Operation Smile is working to change that.
Cleft lips and cleft palates occur when the lip does not completely fuse together in utero between the fourth and seventh week and the palate does not completely form between the sixth and ninth week of pregnancy. Worldwide roughly one per 500 to 700 births have one or both forms of the defect, which translates to one child every three minutes born with a cleft lip and/or palate.
Science is not quite sure what causes the defect though genetic and environmental factors are suspected to be the cause. Mothers or fathers who have a genetic predisposition can pass along the defect to the child; if the mother engages in unhealthy habits such as smoking, has diabetes, and/or takes certain medicines it might cause the defect, or not having enough folic acid before pregnancy and during the early stages is thought to be a factor.
A child who has a cleft lip and/or palate can experience several health issues and become socially ostracized if the defect is not fixed. Operation Smile says that there are three main reasons why they chose to focus on a child’s smile:
- If the defect goes unfixed it can become a social stigma. The child is teased and left out of games because of how the lip and teeth are formed.
- The child can experience hunger and thirst as a result of not being able to nurse and eat correctly.
- The child may form a speech impediment which then results in the child shying away from speaking in public or school.
To let children regain their confidence and not experience the above negative results, Operation Smile coordinates teams of medical volunteers with the efforts of donors and staff to give the children the surgery that they need. Since 1982, they have provided more than 220,000 free surgeries to people with facial deformities.
Their goal is to “break down obstacles to surgery through education, training, medical diplomacy and advocacy, and [they]do that by partnering with government agencies, local health systems, non-profit organizations and any like-minded entities to deliver care.”
Currently, two billion people are lacking access to any surgical care and roughly only 4 percent “of an estimated 234 million surgical procedures performed each year go to the poorest third of the global population.”
Because the lack of surgical care touches many people and the patients who have cleft lips and/or palates repair need aftercare, Operation Smile not only sets up medical missions internationally and locally, but they also help form care centers, research programs to find the exact cause of the cleft defect, training and educating the local communities and advocacy as a whole.
When a child is given his smile back, a whole new world can open up. Operation Smile is helping children regain their lives by helping them shed social stigma, malnourishment issues and speech impediments. Their confidence is regained now that they do not have to worry about a birth defect.
– Megan Ivy