July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness and improve understanding of the many craniofacial anomalies that affect thousands of babies in the United States each year. About 3% of all babies have some kind of birth defect, one of the most common being a cleft lip and/or palate. And, every hour, a child is born with a craniofacial condition in the United States. While these conditions present as a physical uniqueness, 95% of these babies will undergo multiple surgeries and need medical care throughout childhood and adulthood. Without treatment, cleft conditions can create severe health issues. Babies born with a cleft lip and/or palate often have issues feeding, which can lead to malnutrition and starvation. A cleft palate also puts children at higher risk of recurring ear infections, which can cause hearing loss, and hinders their speech and language development.
While an exact cause for craniofacial anomalies isn’t known, most experts agree that there is no single factor that causes them. Rather, it’s most likely a combination of genetics and other factors, such as environmental exposure, that is responsible for these birth defects. A cleft lip and/or palate is the most common congenital craniofacial anomaly seen at birth, and is a separation that occurs in the lip and/or palate. Other common types of craniofacial conditions include craniosynostosis (when the soft spots in the skull close too early, causing problems with normal brain and skull growth), hemifacial microsomia (when the tissues on one side of the face are underdeveloped), vascular malformation (a birthmark or growth composed of blood vessels), hemangioma (an abnormally growing blood vessel in the skin), and plagiocephaly (flat or misshapen head).
There are several known risk factors that may increase the likelihood of a baby developing a cleft lip and cleft palate in the womb, which include:
- Family history: Parents with a family history of a cleft lip or cleft palate are at higher risk of having a baby with an orofacial cleft.
- Smoking and drinking alcohol: Women who smoke during pregnancy and women who binge drink during the first few weeks of pregnancy are more likely to have a baby with cleft lip and/or cleft palate.
- Diabetes: Women diagnosed with diabetes before pregnancy have an increased risk of having a baby with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.
- Use of certain medicines: Women who used certain medications during the first trimester, such as those used to treat epilepsy, have a higher risk of having a baby with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.
- Obesity during pregnancy: Babies born to obese women may have an increased risk of having a cleft lip and/or cleft palate.
A baby’s lips form between 4 to 7 weeks of pregnancy, and their palate forms between 6 to 9 weeks of pregnancy, so a cleft lip and/or palate occurs very early in the pregnancy. Although this may be spotted during a routine ultrasound, most babies are diagnosed with cleft lip and/or cleft palate after birth. A baby with either of these conditions, especially a cleft palate, may have a harder time breastfeeding and may need to be fed from a bottle. A cleft lip is typically repaired between 3 to 6 months of age, while a cleft palate is usually repaired around 12 months of age. Treatment helps with breathing, hearing, and speech and language development, and other surgeries will most likely be needed as they grow, but most kids with cleft lip and/or cleft palate are treated successfully with no lasting problems. There’s no doubt that surgical intervention significantly improves the quality of life of children with orofacial clefts, which is why we chose Operation Smile as our charity of the
Operation Smile is a nonprofit founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee Jr. and his wife, Kathy, after they joined a cleft repair mission in the Philippines. Once they realized how many children still needed surgery after the medical mission ended, they established Operation Smile. Today, it is an organization that has helped over 326,000 children around the world receive surgeries to repair cleft lips, cleft palates, and other facial deformities—for free. Recognizing that no country or community around the world is the same, the nonprofit works with local medical professionals, governments, hospitals, and other nonprofits to create various models of surgical care. This pragmatic approach allows Operation Smile to effectively reach solutions in order to treat as many children as possible.
Because Operation Smile works in countries where access to surgical care for cleft conditions often doesn’t exist, the organization also works to empower local health professionals through training and education in order to give surgical care more effectively. Almost 80% of Operation Smile’s medical volunteers are health care professionals from the low and middle income countries that the nonprofit operates in. Children with orofacial clefts in these countries often have very long waits for treatment due to a lack of adequately trained surgical teams. By training local health care workers, Operation Smile hopes to remedy this problem and get these children the care that they need as quickly as possible. The comprehensive care that children treated through Operation Smile receive includes a safe and sterile surgical environment; a team of certified nurses, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, surgeons, and other specialists; health screenings; nutrition assistance or additional medical care before surgery; and care centers in 18 countries that provide speech therapy, dentistry, psychosocial care, and more. Every aspect of cleft care is provided at no cost to the families that Operation Smile serves.
With 2 billion people in the world who lack access to any surgical care, and billions more who lack access to safe and timely surgery, Operation Smile’s mission is to someday give every child the care and treatment they need and deserve. Globally, a child is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate every 3 minutes. The majority of these children are unable to receive surgery that is often necessary for survival and quality of life because it’s too costly, too far away, of inadequate quality, or because it’s not available at all. Operation Smile has foundations and rep offices in over 40 countries, allowing them to conduct more than a hundred medical missions per year. Through their tireless and revolutionary work, the organization has established the perfect medical mission model that makes the impossible possible for children all over the world.