Ezekiel Wanjala sits patiently waiting at the Dreamland Mission Hospital, Bungoma County, as the nutritionist at the facility examines him in preparation for a surgery that will change his life. After completion of the surgery, the young boy can finally smile without feeling conscious.
Wanjala was born with a cleft lip, a common birth condition that occurs when certain body structures around the mouth do not fuse together during foetal development. They can involve the lip and or the roof of the mouth, which is made up of both the hard and soft palate. Causes of a cleft remain unknown, but risk factors include environmental, lack of proper nutrition before and during pregnancy as well as genetics.
While the condition could have been repaired sooner, Wanjala and other children like him had to wait since the government had suspended all elective surgeries due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wanjala’s dream to have a beautiful smile is now becoming a reality thanks to global cleft charity Smile Train, which is working with its local partners in Africa to resume providing life-saving, free cleft surgeries.
Smile Train Africa Vice President and Regional Director, Dr Esther Njoroge-Muriithi, said there had been many cleft patients awaiting surgeries since they were postponed in April.
During that time, she said Smile Train continued to provide cleft care including nutrition, speech therapy and psychological support to patients. Smile Train also invested more than $500,000 (Sh53.3 million) in the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), handwashing facilities and masks for organisations and patients as well as equipment to empower their partners to continue cleft care while protecting themselves and their patients against Covid-19.
“At Smile Train Africa we are delighted that, where possible, patients can now receive safe cleft surgeries that will enable them to live full and productive lives. Over the last two months, there have been approximately 2,500 patients, who were not able to receive treatment,” said Dr Njoroge-Muriithi.
Smile Train Africa, she said, had provided the much-needed PPEs, pulse oximeters, non-contact infrared thermometers, handwashing stations and masks that will go a long way in protecting the safety and well-being of health workers and patients, as well as support in curbing the spread of the virus.
But, even as Smile Train provides guidance for resumption of cleft treatment, its Medical Advisory Council Member Adetokunbo Adebola said the cautious return of the surgeries was primarily guided by the in-country measures put in place by their Health ministries.
Prof Adebola called for strict observation of in-country guidelines while resuming cleft care.
“The resumption of surgeries is a welcome relief even for our surgical teams, but must be implemented systematically with the guidance and support of the government. The threat posed by the virus is real. Some countries are still grappling with rampant infections that are overwhelming their healthcare workforce. We, therefore, encourage Smile Train partners to uphold the highest standards of prevention and control for our patients,” said Prof Adebola.