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Volunteers on standby to return smiles to young children and adults

Published Oct 3, 2023


More than 30 children and adults will, later this month, benefit from an Eastern Cape Department of Health and Operation Smile South Africa’s collaborative effort in reconstructive cleft surgeries.

This comes after the Eastern Cape Health Hepartment and Operation Smile SA signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which will see volunteers at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha return the smiles of 30 cleft lip and palate patients.

According to the department, this life-changing screening and surgeries for cleft lip or cleft palates will take place at the hospital over a three-day period from 20-23 October 2023.

During this time, a team of dedicated Operation Smile medical volunteers from across South Africa will converge at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha to transform the lives of those affected.

Operation Smile SA’s Programme Manager, Fiola Lujabe, says this development is welcomed one, given that statistics show a child is born with a cleft condition every three minutes globally, making it the third most prevalent congenital anomaly.

Lujabe said under normal circumstances, this life-changing surgery should be administered within the first 18 months of a child’s life.

This is because without surgery, children with cleft lip or cleft palates face serious health developmental challenges and will likely suffer emotional abuse and social isolation.

“The longer a child born with a cleft must await surgery, the more severe their potential health, developmental and psychological complications become. The encouraging news is that cleft conditions can often be surgically corrected in a remarkably brief 45-minute procedure when performed by a proficient medical team, Lujabe said.

Eastern Cape MEC for Health, Nomakhosazana Meth, has welcomed the initiative aimed at restoring the lives and smiles of children and other patients.

“We are grateful for the partnership with Operation Smile SA. We are looking forward to having the superheroes of volunteers transform our people’s lives again.

“Such partnerships help improve the quality of life and addresses health complications. We are looking forward to having the medical volunteers who operate under the banner of Operation Smile SA returning to the Eastern Cape to operate on so many people,” the MEC said.

This initiative marks the second surgical weekend in the Eastern Cape since the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the recent beneficiaries of this three-day-long initiative is two year-old Ntlelo, born with a cleft lip and palate, who was among 23 children and one adult who received cleft surgery.

At the time of Ntlelo’s birth, her mother, Mhlamunye, was disheartened and helpless as she did not know anything about the anomaly.

“I had never seen or heard of such a thing before. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. People in my community laughed at me, and it hurt.”

Mhlamunye will bring Ntlelo to the hospital again this year for surgery to repair her cleft palate, which is critical to support her speech development.

Operation Smiles dedicated team of volunteers consists of highly specialised professionals, including plastic and reconstructive surgeons, anaesthesiologists, paediatricians, nurses, dentists, speech therapists, and psychosocial experts.

The surgeries will also be done in collaboration with the medical staff at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital, with members of the team already having promised both parents and their children the highest standard of compassionate healthcare.

This comprehensive care package includes transportation, accommodation, nourishment, medical assessments, surgeries, and post-surgical evaluations, including speech and dental assessments.