Quest to give children with cleft lips perfect smile

There is no clear cause for cleft lip, a condition that affects one in every 1,200 children. However, surgeries such as those supported by Smile Train, a charity organisation, offers children a better quality of life

Peter Ngila @peterngilanjeri

Chelmis Muthoni, 24, born with a bilateral cleft lip, was first operated on when she was nine months old. She went on to have four more surgeries.

“I was an introvert in school. It was challenging when I was younger because children couldn’t understand why I had a different smile,” Muthoni says, adding that after the final cleft lip surgery was done, she finds it easier to make friends. 

Globally, one in 700 babies is born with a cleft lip and/or palate. Clefts are the leading birth defect in many developing countries. The cleft incidence rate of individuals of African descent is approximately one  in every 1,200 births. 

“The correction process has been a journey, because it was both cleft lip and palate. My first two surgeries helped repair the lip, the third one to repair the palate, the fourth one was lip revival, while the last one was to revive both the lip and the palate,” Muthoni says, adding that two surgeries would have been enough for her, but her tissues couldn’t grow at the same pace with the rest of her body. Muthoni graduated last year from the University of Nairobi and is currently a hardware and software developer.   In regards to Chelmis Muthoni’s case, Dr Martin Warui Kamau, one of the surgeons involved with Smile Train, says  doing the procedure on an adult is easier than a child because the tissues are all grown and mature. “A cleft lip happens when the lip does not join together properly when a baby is developing during early pregnancy. During the surgery, we try to align those segments,” he says, adding that, after the surgery, the patient should be able to eat and speak.

“The best results can be achieved when the patient is below six years old. If the cleft remains in childhood, the patient gets problems with speech in adulthood, even if you close the palate,” he says.

In such a scenario, Dr Kamau, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s human anatomy department and an oral maxillofacial surgeon, recommends the services of a speech pathologist.   

The exact cause of cleft lips isn’t known, but most experts suggest they may include a genetic predisposition as well as environmental issues such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, maternal illness, infections and lack of folic acid.

Milka Muthoni, 23, who was born with a unilateral cleft lip, says she led a shy childhood. “Life was so difficult at school; I used to keep to myself. I underwent my first surgery to correct my cleft clip at 11, but as I grew up, my cleft lip repair wasn’t growing at the same pace with the rest of my body.”

After her lip was corrected through surgery with the help of Smile Train, her life changed. Smile Train, an international charity organisation, which supports free corrective surgeries and care for patients with cleft lip and palate, recently marked 100,000 cleft surgeries in the African continent.

Smile Train has in Kenya partnered with several county governments to train surgeons on the newest innovation and technology for cleft surgeries. Speaking during the event which was held in Nairobi, Smile Train President and CEO Susannah Schaefer said: “We are proud to reach such a huge milestone in the African continent. We managed to do so with the help from our local medical partners, corporate partners, donors, patients and their families, ambassadors and local community members who have ensured that every child has access to cleft care.”

According to Jane Ngige, Program Director for East Africa at Smile Train, since 2002, the organisation has helped over 8,000 children and adults get free cleft surgeries, through the organisation’s network of 21 hospitals in Kenya. Patients doesn’t pay anything, thanks to donations from individuals and donors from countries like India, Germany, America, the United Kingdom and the African continent.

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