Mariza, Joseph, and Steven are just three of many precious children that our Austin Smiles team enjoyed meeting and helping last week in El Salvador. Cleft lips and/or palates occur in the United States at a frequency of roughly 1 in 700-1000 births (roughly 7000 babies per year) making them one of the most common birth defects. However, these problems arise with more than twice that frequency in Central America and in some Asian countries. Why? We are not completely sure.
Scientists continue to investigate the various contributing roles that genetics, nutrition, toxins, and environment play in creating these defects, hoping to find ways to prevent their occurrence. Meanwhile, plastic surgeons, dentists, orthodontists, cranio-facial surgeons, anesthesiologists, primary care physicians, speech pathologists and speech therapists are all working together to help re-align lip, nose, mouth, and palate muscles and other tissue that never came together, as well as using mouthpieces and tongue/muscle/speech exercises to improve tone and clarity of speech. The clefts can be on one side or both, and can involve the nose, the teeth, the jaw and the palate. The defects range in severity from a mild tenting of one side of the lip, to severe clefts extending through the nose and the entire roof of the mouth, leaving a gaping hole where there should be protective tissue.
The costs of cleft lip and palate defects are measured not simply in dollars or time spent in medical care, but in emotional trauma as well. Many of these children and their families are shunned by their peers, and the mothers of these children may be inappropriately blamed for causing the disfiguring defects. You cannot imagine how much gratitude and tears of joy these families heaped upon us when we simply played with and LOVED their children. We praised the parents for their dedication, extra attention and efforts. One seven month old girl, Angelica, had a facial defect so incredibly severe that there was only a hole in the center of her face where the upper lip and entire nose should be. Her mother had to literally drip formula from a bottle one drop at a time on to her tongue to feed her, yet this child was well above average weight and height for her age. Think about the emotional and physical fortitude it must require to care for this baby. I could barely speak to this amazing young twenty-two year old mom without tearing up, because I cannot imagine facing such an intense challenge.
Our family is truly honored to be part of the Austin Smiles team, and to have met such inspiring individuals and families in El Salvador.
BOTTOM LINE: Cleft lip and palate defects are common and CORRECTABLE, given adequate resources and funds. Please consider supporting Austin Smiles with a donation of your time, talents or treasure.