NAIROBI, Kenya June 23 – As government restrictions slowly lift in Africa and communities begin to return to normalcy, global cleft charity Smile Train is working with their local partners in Africa to resume providing life-saving, free cleft surgeries. While the world is different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smile Train’s top priority remains, as always, the safety and well-being of their beneficiaries, medical partners, and families.
Smile Train Africa Vice President and Regional Director Dr. Esther Njoroge-Muriithi noted that there have been many cleft patients awaiting surgeries since they were postponed in April. During this time, Smile Train continued to provide comprehensive cleft care including nutrition, speech therapy and psychological support to patients. Smile Train also invested more than $500,000 in the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), handwashing facilities and masks for partners and patients as well as equipment to empower their partners to continue cleft care while protecting themselves and their patients against COVID-19.
“At Smile Train Africa we are delighted that, where possible, patients can now receive safe cleft surgeries that will enable them to live full and productive lives. Over the last two months, there have been approximately 2500 patients who were not able to receive treatment. Though the surgeries were postponed, our comprehensive cleft care and partnership model enabled us to get back on track swiftly and sustain access to safe treatment for our patients,” said Dr. Njoroge-Muriithi.
“Smile Train Africa has provided the much-needed PPE, pulse oximeters, non-contact infrared thermometers, handwashing stations and masks that will go a long way in protecting the safety and well-being of health workers and patients, as well as support in curbing the spread of the virus. Where testing is available, Smile Train is supporting our local partners with grants that will aid testing of patients before they undergo surgery,” she added.
Although Smile Train has provided guidance for resumption of cleft treatment, Smile Train Africa Medical Advisory Council Member Prof. Adetokunbo Adebola noted that the cautious return of the surgeries was primarily guided by the in-country measures put in place by the Ministries of Health. While some countries have managed to slow the spread of the virus more efficiently, some are still experiencing challenges. Prof. Adebola advised the partners to follow in-country guidelines while resuming cleft care.
“The resumption of surgeries is a welcome relief even for our surgical teams but must be implemented systematically with the guidance and support of the Government. The threat posed by the virus is real. Some countries are still grappling with rampant infections that are overwhelming their healthcare workforce. We therefore encourage Smile Train partners to uphold the highest standards of prevention and control for our patients,” noted Prof. Adebola.
Smile Train has been actively supporting programs in Africa since 2002. In that time, the organization has developed local partnerships with more than 245 partner hospitals throughout Africa to support more than 120,000 free cleft surgeries.
A cleft is a common birth difference that occurs when certain body structures around the mouth do not fuse together during fetal development. They can involve the lip and/or the roof of the mouth, which is made up of both the hard and soft palate. Causes of a cleft remain unknown but risk factors include environmental factors, lack of proper nutrition before and during pregnancy, as well as genetics.
Many children with untreated clefts around the world live in isolation, making it difficult to make friends and go to school, but more importantly, have difficulty eating, breathing, and speaking. Smile Train continues to reach out to local communities, dispelling myths and misinformation that surround cleft.