Volunteers to provide free cleft lip surgeries

It is every expectant parents’ desire to give birth to a healthy baby free from any disabilities and defects that could hinder their growth and development but sometimes it may not be the case.

It is every expectant parents’ desire to give birth to a healthy baby free from any disabilities and defects that could hinder their  growth and development but sometimes it may not be the case.

The new born may have a defect that could make them be shunned by peers thus making them grow up with low self esteem.

One such defect is cleft lip or cleft palate, a birth defect that hinders children’s ability to eat or speak properly.

A cleft lip is a malformation where the lip has not fused together and fully formed with what looks like a gap in the upper lip, while a cleft palate is a hole in the roof of the mouth.

Diane Umurerwa, 18, walked around with a cleft palate for close to 17 years and says the condition subjected her to stigma that greatly affected her self esteem.

It is estimated that every year about 200 newborns are born with clefts. The defect can be corrected through a surgical procedure valued at $3,000 (about Rwf2 million) which had previously made it inaccessible to a large section of the population.

However, Smile Train, a non-profit volunteer medical organisation is out to rescue people living with the condition.

For almost three years, the organisation has been offering free corrective surgeries to Rwandans with the condition.

Other than Rwanda, the organisation also operates in  DR Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia, and parts of Asia.

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Dr Ong’uti during the interview with Saturday Times last week. (John Mbanda)

Dr Meshack Ong’uti, the head of the mission in the region who was recently in the country, told Saturday Times that this year’s first phase of operation would be weeklong beginning on February 1 to 6 in Rwamagana and registration is currently ongoing.

He said patients will be admitted to the facility beginning January 31 in readiness for the operations.

“This year, we plan to bring the services here four times; in February, May, August and November. But we are ready to increase the frequency in the event that there is a special need for more services,” Dr Ong’uti said.

Besides the corrective surgeries, the organisation will also train medical practitioners who will in turn reach out to more people on the medics’ departure.

“We realised that the best way to train and improve the skills of the practitioners is going beyond theoretical facilitation to involving the trainees in practical work to give them better insights and understanding,” Dr Ong’uti said.

“We carry out between 50 and 60 operations on average every time we come around. We have been able to see to it that over 400 patients are operated on,” Ong’uti said.

He said most people with the deformities, especially in the rural areas, had for long succumbed to fate, something that informed the organisation’s decision to take the operation there.

He said their  decision rose out of the realisation that health care in most African countries was not based on actual research to find out specific areas where a section of the population was facing challenges.

“Our decision to have the operations mostly in the rural areas is because the future of health care provision is dependent on the proximity of healthcare providers to the rural areas,” the head of the mission said.

Dr Ong’uti commended government’s support to the organisation, which he said, will help ensure that more people access the services.

He said in the course of operations, the organisation incurs numerous costs which, in a way, limit the number of beneficiaries.

“Much as we offer free services, we incur costs in the process, some of which are quite high.  It is, therefore, commendable that the government has come out to support our activities,” Dr Ong’uti noted.

He added that they were not necessarily looking for direct financial aid but even other forms of support such as discounts in logistics (airlines and road transport), affordable accommodation, as well as assistance in communication of the surgeries availability.

He urged the private sector to consider aligning their social corporate responsibility with their cause so as to maximise the impact of their services.

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A mother awaits an operation on her baby at CHUK. (John Mbanda)

Dr Agnes Binagwaho, the Minister for Health, said the volunteers are friends and partners who have helped the ministry to improve the welfare and wellbeing of people with cleft lip and cleft palates.

She echoed the head of mission’s sentiments on the role of private sector in making the initiative a success.