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A small defect with a big impact: How cleft affects Indian children

Over 35,000 children in India are born with cleft every year, a solvable defect that can shackle their emotional and physical growth. While only one-third of these children have access to treatment, only half of them get their surgeries done at the hands of a trained surgeon. More than 10 lakh children with untreated cleft live in isolation. They face immense physical impediments in breathing, eating and speaking. However, the most alarming fact is that most cleft-affected children, especially girls, are abandoned at birth.

In most cases, a simple defect like cleft goes untreated because families of the cleft-affected children lack awareness about its treatment, have misconceptions about whether such a defect can be treated in the very first place. Other ill-conceived notions around this are the cost of the surgery, or worse, fear bringing the child out in the open fearing societal repercussions.

But cleft is a mere barrier to a child’s smile, which once removed, allows a child to have a full and rich life with access to myriad opportunities.

What is cleft?

A cleft is the occurrence of an opening or a slit in the roof of the lip or mouth.
During the stages of foetal development, all parts of the baby’s skull, face, and head grow in sync. If these areas do not join up completely during the formative stage, then the baby may be born with a cleft. Cleft anomalies generally affect the lips and roof of the mouth, better known as the palate. The cause of this obstructive development still remains unknown, yet experts agree that this may be directly linked to genetic, environmental, or nutritional factors.

How cleft prevents children in India from living a fulfilling life

In India, cleft has transcended from being a medical defect to become a social stigma. Children with untreated clefts live in loneliness; they find it hard to mix with people and make friends. Moreover, they are subjected to bullying within and outside their extended family.

Apart from facing adverse social challenges, these children also have to overcome immense physical difficulties for simple tasks that most of us take for granted. These voluntary and involuntary activities include breathing, eating, and speaking. Since these children find it difficult to cope with physical norms, they are at higher risks of malnutrition and underdevelopment. They are seldom sent to school and are deprived of building their future and a fruitful career.

What does cleft treatment entail?

A simple 45-minute surgery by a trained plastic surgeon can repair cleft. Contrary to prevalent beliefs, this reconstructive surgery is possible within just Rs. 18,000. Post this, these children undergo a sea change in their physical ability and appearance.
At an advanced stage, cleft can cause speech impairment. So, following up the surgery with a speech therapy helps these children recover and gain more confidence in their vocal skills. Soon after, these children and their families can reclaim their smiles without the fear of facing social prejudice.

With organisations like Smile Train supporting this cause, cleft is gradually becoming no more of a taboo, but a small defect that can be easily rectified. The cure is available even at local hospitals in India today, which have benefitted from the knowledge and training imparted by NGOs, concerned citizens and trained doctors. These groups are working towards educating parents and doctors, sponsoring cleft surgeries and empowering children. With so much help at hand, it’s time to turn every cleft into a million-dollar smile!

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