Smile Train has provided high-quality cleft care in well-equipped, safe facilities to more than 1.5 million children across 90 plus countries and been recognised as the world’s largest cleft charity
Published on August 10, 2021 at 2:32 am
Being born with a cleft lip is still a taboo in India, even more so for a girl born in rural India. When little Divya was born with a cleft lip and palate in Tamil Nadu, her father considered her condition too great a burden and abandoned her mother and her. Luckily for her, everything changed the day her mother took her to Smile Train India’s partner hospital, Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre at Chennai where she received free cleft treatment covering surgery and comprehensive cleft care. Today, she is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer and has transformed from a little girl hiding in the shadows to a confident teenager not afraid of the spotlight.
More than 100 babies are born with cleft lips and palates every day, in India. A facial birth difference, cleft is a gap in the upper lip and/or the palate (roof of the mouth) when certain body parts and structures do not fuse together during fetal development. Although unidentified scientifically, most experts agree that the causes of cleft lip and/or palate are multifactorial and may include a genetic predisposition, as well as environmental or nutritional factors.
Annually, more than 35,000 Indian children are born with clefts and hundreds of thousands of children with untreated clefts live in isolation, but more importantly, have difficulty eating, breathing, hearing, and speaking. Children with untreated clefts can experience:
• Isolation and prejudice in their communities. No child deserves to feel isolated
• Malnourishment due to being unable to eat, leading to starvation, and in some cases even death
• Chronic ear infections, leading to permanent hearing loss
• Struggling to speak and express themselves, often resulting in a lifetime of anxiety and depression.
Cleft surgery is simple, and the transformation is immediate. However, cleft surgery is expensive, requires an experienced plastic or maxillofacial surgeon and hospital infrastructure equipped for paediatric surgery. In addition, many patients require comprehensive care such as Speech Therapy and Orthodontics for complete rehabilitation. These factors make it nearly impossible for underprivileged patients to get this treatment as they cannot afford the cost of surgery and often live in rural and remote locations with limited access to the treatment and comprehensive care.
Building a sustainable solution
Smile Train is a non-profit organisation founded in 1999 at New York, USA with the focused objective of supporting totally free, safe and quality cleft treatment for underprivileged patients across the world.
The sustainable partnership model developed by Smile Train is unique. Instead of flying in doctor missions from other nations or across the country to hold free surgery camps, Smile Train took the sustainable approach of partnering with existing, credentialed hospitals, building capacities of local surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and improving hospital infrastructure. This ‘Teach a man to fish’ approach has enabled Smile Train to provide high-quality cleft care in well-equipped, safe facilities to more than 1.5 million children across 90 plus countries. Today, Smile Train is recognised as the world’s largest cleft charity.
In India, Smile Train is at the vanguard of addressing this very vital but severely under-served health need. Smile Train India has supported 6,40,000 plus cleft surgeries in India in the past 20 years through a network of 140 plus partner hospitals. The impact Smile Train India has created is not just in the number of surgeries, but also in reduced DALYs (Disability Affected Life Years) as the average age for a primary cleft surgery has come down from 7 years to 2 years in the past 20 years.
These surgeries have enabled children born with clefts to go to school, get an education and grow up with equal opportunities in life as other children within their communities. Thus, Smile Train promotes the Sustainable Development Goals of ‘Good Health and Well-being’ and ‘Reduced Inequalities.’
Smile Train India’s toll-free Cleft Helpline (1800 103 8301) is the country’s first and only national cleft resource which is available, free of cost, to all cleft patients and parents of children with clefts. The helpline not only provides information about the nearest Smile Train treatment centre but other cleft-related information as well.
Over the past 20 years, through investments in research, new technologies and capacity building, Smile Train India has helped raise the standard of cleft care across the country and facilitated an environment of thought leadership and advocacy in the cleft care communities.
India’s first cleft leadership centre
One of the most recent initiatives by Smile Train is the launch of India’s first Cleft Leadership Centre at Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital, Bengaluru. A first of its kind facility in India, the Smile Train Cleft Leadership Center supports 100% free multi-disciplinary cleft treatment from birth to adulthood.
Equipped with the latest technology and staffed with some of the best-trained medical professionals, the Cleft Leadership Center serves as a regional hub for cleft treatment and training, providing best in class, free comprehensive care. This includes a holistic, team-centred model that encompasses surgery, counselling, nutritional support, orthodontics, dental and ENT Care, speech therapy and psychosocial support.
Cleft lip and palate is one of the few treatable birth differences and Smile Train is determined to facilitate a world where every person has access to high-quality cleft care and is able to live a full and healthy life.