More smiles as cleft patients treatment in Africa increases during pandemic

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Dr. Martin Kamau (left) and his team of Bela Risu Foundation, a Smile Train partner prepare for a surgery on a patient with cleft. Through its traditional model of partnering with local hospitals, Smile Train was able to reach 2000 more patients than was anticipated during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Smile Train, the world’s largest cleft organization, is proud to announce its local programs in Africa stood the test of the COVID-19 pandemic with a marked twenty percent increase in patients receiving free cleft treatment between June 2020-June 2021—2,000 more than was anticipated.

Smile Train supports comprehensive cleft care through partnerships with locally based medical professionals. These partnerships within the local communities ensured that despite the grounded travel and limited contact in 2020, Smile Train partner hospitals continued to cater to their patients where mission-led treatment was halted. Going beyond surgery, Smile Train also provides speech therapy, nutrition care and orthodontics.

Smile Train Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Esther Njoroge-Muriithi, attributed the increase in treatments to Smile Train’s sustainable model, as well as the resilience and collaboration of Smile Train’s healthcare partners. She underscored the importance of investment in local healthcare professionals who continue to offer treatment through challenging circumstances.

“More than ever, the pandemic revealed opportunities for partnership that have significantly benefited the patients in low- and middle-income communities. Our unique model of funding and investing in training and resources empowers our healthcare professionals to cater to patients’ individual needs. We also acknowledge the support of global partners who complemented our efforts, enabling us to reach many more patients in the continent,” noted Dr. Njoroge-Muriithi.

 Dr. Amanda Malungo poses with a patient whose cleft was treated. At the onset of the pandemic, Smile Train moved swiftly to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical equipment to partners who were able to continue providing care.

At the onset of the pandemic, Smile Train moved swiftly to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical equipment to partners who were able to continue providing care. Smile Train’s Global Medical Advisory Board and Regional Medical Advisory Councils also offered protocols and recommendations for the postponement and resumption of surgical care, including the COVID-19 Surgical Patient Checklist, a lifesaving tool that provides key infection prevention strategies to professionals across many different surgical settings and regions.

Smile Train also leveraged partnerships with professional organizations including non-profits and universities who amplified capacity building through training and education. One successful example is the Telecleft Virtual Lectures, which are weekly hour-long sessions by Africa’s most prolific cleft care professionals. The lectures, which began in Nigeria in partnership with the West African College of Surgeons, have grown to become model programs that will be adapted in countries like Indonesia.

Through the pandemic, innovative telehealth programs anchored Smile Train’s comprehensive cleft care treatment, with partners creatively dispensing treatment where surgery and in-person care were not possible. Such interventions included SMS-based nutrition and weight monitoring as well as online speech therapy sessions where possible.

One patient whose life was transformed during the pandemic was Sivingeha, who was born in Goma, DR-Congo in November 2020 with a bilateral cleft lip. Her mother, Mrs. Kambere, was experiencing challenges breastfeeding her daughter. With the support of Lorraine, a nutritionist at Smile Train partner hospital CBCA Bethesda Hospital in Goma, Mrs. Kambere was given breastfeeding support as well as advice on food commodities and preparations to improve Sivingeha’s nutritional status. Sivingeha received a life-changing surgery to treat her cleft lip in March 2021 by Smile Train partner physician, Dr. Vitswamba.

Smile Train has been actively supporting programs in Africa since 2002. In that time, the organization has developed local partnerships with more than 245 partner hospitals and 255+ medical partners in 40 countries throughout Africa. To date, Smile Train’s local medical partners have provided more than 120,000 life-changing free cleft surgeries across Africa.

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