Cleft lip and palate is one of the most common birth defects in the world and once repaired, most people born with a cleft grow up to live healthy lives with few if any complications.
Although the vast majority of infants born with a cleft in the West have immediate access to comprehensive cleft care, there are millions of children in developing countries who live with an unrepaired cleft.
The reason for this is manifold, but poverty is an important one. Another problem is the lack of surgeons trained to perform cleft repair in poorer areas of the world, as well as general ignorance about the cause of cleft.
In some remote communities, a child born with a cleft is considered cursed and rejected by its family. Children with an unrepaired cleft are often victims of discrimination, and their families are too ashamed and scared to take them out in public. Sometimes the mother of a cleft child is accused of having done something wrong for her child to be born with a cleft and often mothers do indeed blame themselves.
Whatever the reason for an unrepaired cleft, the reality is that such children are much less likely to be accepted into their community, attend school, let alone get married and have children of their own.
That is why I support Smile Train, an international children’s charity that provides free cleft repair to those who could otherwise not afford it or whose families are unaware of the surgical procedure that will completely transform their child’s life.
To thank me for my monthly donation to the charity, Smile Train recently sent me a DVD of some of their work and this morning I popped it into my computer to watch. And I couldn’t stop watching.
There was Osawa, a 6-year old boy from a remote village in Tanzania, who travelled thousands of miles to Dar-Es-Salaam to have his cleft repaired. Although the surgery was free, his parents couldn’t afford the bus fare to the city, so the hospital arranged for Osawa and his mum to be picked up by car and driven all the way to the cleft clinic.
Then there was Pinki, a sullen, shy 5-year old girl from rural India, whose family found out about the possibility of cleft repair thanks to a wider community initiative. Cleft repair changed Pinki’s life.
No longer hidden away at home, she was now able to attend school with her sister, and as she danced around the school playground with the other children, her beautiful smile was a testament to just how much her life had been transformed by one relatively simple operation.
Watching these children and learning about their personal stories left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy for the boys and girls whose lives changed for the better as a result of cleft repair; and on the other hand, I felt sad – and angry – that millions of children and adults continue to live with unrepaired cleft due to poverty, inequality and ignorance.
What kind of a world is it that sets a price on a smile?