Cleft lip and palate, known as orofacial clefts, are congenital birth defects resulting from improper formation of a baby’s lip or mouth during pregnancy.
These conditions can be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, including the mother’s lifestyle and health during pregnancy.
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Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one in every 700 children is born with cleft conditions. Of those, one in 1,200 children in Africa is estimated to be affected, with 19,000 cleft children born annually on the continent, including 6,000 in Nigeria.
Dr. Akintunde Akintayo, a Consultant Surgeon at Jos University Teaching Hospital, explains that cleft occurs when facial tissues don’t properly fuse during fetal development. Cleft lip is a congenital opening on the lip, and cleft palate is an opening in the throat.
While cleft can be hereditary, it’s treatable. However, it’s essential for mothers to be cautious about their lifestyle choices during pregnancy.
To address the issue, Smile Train, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has been providing free corrective cleft surgery in 87 countries, including Nigeria, since 1999. In Nigeria, Smile Train has sponsored over 25,000 free cleft treatments since 2002, empowering local medical professionals to provide comprehensive care.
Despite this progress, there is a need for increased awareness, especially in rural communities, where many affected individuals remain unaware of the available free treatment.
Medical professionals like Prof. Emmanuel Ameh call on government support to improve surgical treatment and care for cleft patients. They stress the importance of viewing surgical care as a critical aspect of healthcare and expanding access.
Beneficiaries of Smile Train’s free treatment, like Rhoda Ajiji, share their experiences, highlighting the challenges they face in accessing care. Ajiji’s story reflects the need for increased awareness and support in rural areas.
Rev. Ayuba Asheshe dispels misconceptions that cleft is a result of spiritual attacks, emphasizing that it’s a genetic condition. Many churches, including the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), are committed to supporting individuals seeking medical help.
Da Samuel Jok, the District Head of Riyom, pledges support for organizations like Smile Train in providing assistance to cleft patients in rural communities.
With collaboration from stakeholders in the health sector, it’s hoped that the prevalence of cleft conditions in Nigeria, particularly in rural areas, can be significantly reduced, allowing those affected to access free treatment through initiatives like Smile Train.