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Reason to smile

  Saturday, 21 l 05 l 2011  Source: The Straits Times   
By: Ashleigh Sim

Malikahon is one of 82 Uzbek children given free cleft ops by Operation Smile

operation-smileLITTLE Malikahon Islamova, was born four months earlier in Uzbekistan with a cleft lip and little hope that her parents could afford reconstructive surgery. Help seemed at hand in the form of a Singaporean mission that was on its second visit to the central Asian nation to perform such operations. But Malikahon was two months short of the minimum age limit the medics have set for the operation. That did not stop her mother from turning up at the Tashkent Paediatric Medical Institute the day before to plead for her baby. Mrs Zulfliya Islamova, 29, waited a tense four hours in the chilly spring morning in the hope that the Singapore surgeons would be able to reverse the cruel card that life had dealt her only

daughter. Thankfully, the baby was selected for surgery but Mrs Islamova still cried as she handed her daughter over to the medics. An hour and a half later and Mrs Islamova was crying again, this time with relief as Singaporean nurses Rumya Ananthan, 24, and Isna Sabariah, 23, brought her baby back. The opening in Malikahon’s lips had been sealed, and now she would be able to eat and speak properly.

Malikahon was the first of 82 children who received free surgery from the team of volunteer doctors and nurses on the Uzbekistan mission organised by the charity Operation Smile Singapore (OSS) in March. OSS medics treated 80 kids on their first Uzbekistan mission, in 2009. The numbers are an indication of the need. OSS estimates that one in every 500 children in Asia is born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. The number here is one in 600 children.

A cleft lip or palate is an opening in the lip, the roof of the mouth (palate), or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. The defect is due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors including drugs, infections, maternal illnesses, maternal smoking and malnutrition.

Early surgical intervention is important, according to Dr Vincent Yeow, field medical director of OSS and head of the Cleft and Craniofacial Centre at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. “Children with orofacial clefts often have difficulty breathing, drinking, eating and speaking. As a result, many suffer from malnutrition, medical and psychological problems,” Dr Yeow says. Although the cost of orofacial surgeries starts from as little as S$360, it is impossible for families in developing countries living on less than US$2 (S$2.50) a day to pay for it. The urgent need to help such kids drove private equity investor Gary Loh and Dr Yeow to set up a local chapter of the American charity Operation Smile in 2008.

Its can-do ethos has seen the group carry out 2,604 operations on missions in countries including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Uzbekistan. Each mission involves about 35 volunteer medical and non-medical personnel, both Singaporean and international. Funds come from corporate and individual donors in Singapore and the host country. News of a mission prompts an avalanche of requests. Some parents even borrow money to travel hundreds of kilometres to the OSS site, usually a local hospital which is part of the group’s programme for skills exchange and medical follow-ups. On each mission, the number of patients screened ranges from 45 to 870 but only about half are suitable for free surgery.

OSS executive director Abhimanyu Talukdar says: “In Singapore, most children are able to receive surgery after three months of age. However, we have set the minimum age in our missions at six months. This is because a typical mission trip of two weeks is not sufficient to follow through the recovery of the child if complications occur.” Having to turn a child away can be traumatic, even for the seasoned medics on an OSS mission. But even if a child is turned away by OSS, it is not the end. Mr Talukdar says: “We intend to refer some of these patients to our World Care programme, and seek the generosity of sponsors to bring the child and a guardian to Singapore for surgery.”

Dr Yeow is proud of what OSS has achieved and sings the praises of the volunteer nurses. Private nurse Jasmine Koh says of her experience: “It is very humbling to be part of their life changing experience. They deserve the opportunity to smile with dignity.”

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