Rwanda Focus (Kigali)

Rwanda: Cleft Patients Regain Hope to Smile At Chuk

Honorine Niyiduhaye, six months old, is probably among the youngest patients to regain hope of smiling thanks to free reconstructive surgery to her cleft lip at CHUK. The surgery is being provided by a group of medical professionals volunteering with Operation Smile, a non-profit medical group that provides free surgery to children and adults with cleft lips or cleft palates worldwide.

"It will be an exciting moment that I have never had before once I see my daughter looking like others," said Niyiduha's mother, Maria Chantal Maniraho who stays in Juru sector of Bugesera district.

For the mother of two, it was hard to come to terms with the deformity since she had never seen such cases before. "It was strange to see that my baby had such an abnormality while the first one was in good shape," she remarked.

A cleft lip is a hole in the lip that has caused the lip to not fully form, and a cleft palate is a hole in the roof of the mouth. Medics explain that the malformation can be caused by malnutrition in pregnant women, environment pollution and heredity factors among others.

The disease also creates a lot of social stigma issues. Emmanuel Murwanashya, 18, a senior one student from Gisagara district, says he has been suffering from the isolation due to the deformation. "My classmates sometimes laugh at me, call me 'Bibari' (cleft) instead of my real name and then I end up isolating myself," he said.

According to Dr Martin Nyundo, the medical director at CHUK, Murwanashyaka and Niyiduhaye are just two of many patients from around the country to get the free reconstructive surgery during this year's operation, which has been taking place annually since 2010.

"We have a backlog of cleft patients, yet we lack local experts to conduct the operations," he remarked, adding that this issue is being addressed through on the job training of Rwandan doctors during the annual surgery program.

Operation Smile officials explained that they have a number of training programs that they will develop in the next years in Rwanda focusing on training local physicians.

The ministry of health and Operation Smile signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in September 2009, and the first operations took place in 2010. The organization's volunteers have so far provided free evaluations to 1316 Rwandans and surgery to 742.

The initiative is also supported by local and international organizations such as World Vision, BPR, Unicef and MTN Rwanda, with the latter donating over US$ 40,000 in the past two years.

"We are a private company and 100 per cent commercial, but we are part of Rwanda," stated Khaled Mikkawi, the CEO of MTN Rwanda. "We believe that our mission is not only to make money for the shareholders but also to be part of social activities and to support the community."

The head of the company was also donating another US$ 10,000 to facilitate the free surgery for around 200 patients targeted this year. "Another 150 surgery in Butaro and the training for 174 health care professionals and 26 staff will also benefit from the sponsorship," he added, encouraging the other stakeholders to support such great initiative of operation smile going on.

Approximately 1 in 700 children in the world are born with a cleft lip or a cleft palate. The malformation can also affect other parts of the face such as eyes, ears, nose, cheeks and forehead.

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