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Operation Smile

Since 1982, Operation Smile has provided hundreds of thousands of safe surgeries for those born with cleft conditions. Last year, we provided more than 21,000 patients with surgery and dental care, delivered over 415,000 patient interactions (including patient health screenings; operations and post-operative care; dental screenings and procedures) across 100 sites in 28 countries. However our work is far from finished.

I am often humbled by the trust given to us by parents as they hand over their children to complete strangers for surgery. I have met anxious parents who have travelled for days on hearing that Operation Smile can treat their child, and heard stories of abandonment by parents who think they have been cursed with the birth of a baby with a facial cleft. But most moving of all, I have seen mothers and fathers full of emotion, wiping away tears of joy and relief as they hold their child after surgery. I remember the words of a mother in Ghana: “People ran away when they saw us coming. You, Operation Smile, embraced us and you gave us a new life, a new future for Magdalene and our family”.

The need for our work remains constant. One in 700 children are born with a cleft condition irrespective of where they live. For those born in the UK, the NHS have specialist cleft teams and referral pathways which will ensure that relevant and timely surgery will take place from 3 months onwards to correct the condition. For those born in the developing world, care is much more uncertain. It is estimated that half a million children and adults are living with an untreated cleft condition worldwide. It is our mission to change this.

It is estimated that half a million children and adults are living with an untreated cleft condition worldwide. It is our mission to change this.

It was a wonderful moment this year when we were awarded a substantial grant to tackle the backlog of cleft in Malawi. With an estimated 2,400 children and adults living with untreated cleft conditions plus a birth rate of 700 babies born with this condition annually, we aim to treat 5,810 patients over a five year period. This has been made possible by the generosity of The Kentown Wizard Foundation and their willingness to improve the healthcare outcomes for children and adults in this country. With their backing, we are working with the Malawi Ministry of Health, partner hospitals and other organisations to support surgical missions and the training of operating teams (surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and biomedical engineers) to build the skills required to treat existing and new cases. Supported by a new national cleft registry and a nutrition programme, this grant will make sure that children and adults will receive the care they need.

It is a privilege to be entrusted with the leadership of Operation Smile UK and I always keep in mind the words of our Co-Founder and President Kathy Magee: “Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

Karen Jaques
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