A smile. Such a taken-for-granted display of emotion. Yet for millions of children in developing countries suffering from untreated cleft lip or palate, a smile is no ordinary thing. The condition impacts not just their smiling, but their eating, breathing and speaking. Cleft lip or palate is not just a health issue, it also carries a lot of stigma and can have serious economic consequences. This initiative is putting smiles back where they belong.
More than 170,000 children a year are born with cleft lip and/or palate in the developing world. With surgery out of reach for the majority, eating, breathing and speaking difficulties mean that children cannot attend school, nor hold a job when they grow up. Social isolation and economic difficulties are but predictable consequences of this treatable condition.
Smile Train is a charity that is looking to change this situation. Operating since 1999 and based in the US, the organisation employs a 'teach a man to fish model', through which it trains health providers in communities worldwide to perform cleft surgery. To do this, the team has developed a 3D tool, called the Virtual Surgery Simulator, that guides medical professionals step-by-step through the process of cleft lip and palate repair and provides comprehensive training to allow doctors to carry out these surgeries themselves. The Simulator is a web-based tool and is available completely for free on Smile Train's website.
Yet, the training of doctors alone would not be enough within very poor communities that lack basic infrastructure and the organisation recognises that treating the condition effectively relies on a lot more than just surgery. To this end, Smile Train implements a number of measures to help optimise patient care before, during and after surgery. Via donations made to the organisation, Smile Train partners with hospitals to help fund the improvement of medical facilities (from building new operating rooms to purchasing equipment and surgical supplies) and, where possible, provide patients with comprehensive post-surgery care, including dental care, orthodontics and speech therapy. As part of this, the organisation developed a speech therapy app that patients can use to help train their realigned palate and throat muscles following surgery.
With over one million surgeries performed in over 85 countries, the organisation is not just bringing smiles back where they belong, but is helping to prevent the long term social and economic effects a treatable condition such as cleft lip or palate have on the life of those affected and their families.
You can watch a short video about how it all works here: