Cleft lip and palate are birth defects that occur while a baby is developing in the uterus.
According to Gynecologists, the deformity occurs between the sixth and tenth week of pregnancy, resulting in either splitting of the lips or a hole in the roof of the mouth, called palate.
Available statistics show that the defect affects one in every seven hundred live births worldwide, and in Nigeria, over six thousand children are affected every year.
Before now, affected couples and relatives often attribute the condition to spiritual attacks or a consequence of adultery, with many of them ignorant of the fact that the deformity can be corrected with surgery.
In this special report, Correspondent Yesirat Abiola engages medical experts on the myth and misconceptions surrounding cleft lip/palate, and the solutions to the menace of broken marriages as a result of the condition.
Mrs. Eunice Omoruyi is a mother of an eight year- old boy who had benefited from free Cleft lip Surgery at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH.
“When I had my first child, my mother-in-law was crying, everyone was against me, everything they said I took it in good faith because I don’t have power to choose, If I had the power to pick, I won’t pick a deformed baby.
“Going by what I went through, the agony of a mother with this congenital defects can not be quantified”
Prior to the Surgery, his mother, Mrs. Omoruyi said, she was subjected to inhumane treatment in her matrimonial home.
It was not easy, we always lock him up, no body visit us, we don’t take him out except when going for immunization”
Cleft is a congenital defect that occurs when there is a split in the lips or a hole in the roof of the mouth called palate.
Sometimes, a child may have both the cleft lips and palate.
Medical experts say affected children are prone to ear infection and other infectious diseases, malnutrition and difficulty in speech formation, among other challenges.
What are the causes and how can it be prevented?
A maxillofacial Surgeon, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Prof. Olugbemiga Ogunlewe, stated that the causes of cleft lips and palate are not known yet , but research is still ongoing to ascertain the cause.
She, however, explained that genetic factors, exposure to radiation and self medication are some of the predisposing factors to having cleft lips or palate, and suggested early presentation for ante-natal care and for pregnant women to seek medical advice before taking any drugs
“The cause of cleft lips or cleft palate is not fully understood but there is an interplay between what is physical and internal, that is, genetic and the environment the mother is exposed to”
“There are some risk factors like exposure to radiation, family history, self medication, taking of herbal concortion at the early stage of pregnancy and that’s why it’s advisable for pregnant women to be careful of they take”
How treatable is the condition?
A gynecologist, Federal Medical Centre, Ebute Metta, Dr. Tosin Alade, said that the condition is not life threatening and can be corrected through surgery.
He explained that the affected child could live a normal life devoid of discrimination and stigma after corrective surgery.
“Cleft Lips or cleft palate is not a spiritual problem, it is treaable, it can be detected early through an ultra scan and it can she corrected through surgery, after the surgery the affected child can live a normal life devoid of stigma, it will also boost his or her self confidence”
Be that as it may, it is important to make mention of the psychological effect of having a baby with cleft lips in a family.
Some affected families shared their experiences with Radio Nigeria.
” There was a time my neighbor was celebrating her baby’s birthday, I dressed up my girl for the party, few moments later, the mother called me aside and said I should excuse my daughter“
“ I asked why, she said other children were frightened because of the way my girl mouth was. It was a sad moment for my child and me“
” long time ago, I warned my wife not to allow my kids to play with a daughter of one of my relatives that live in the same compound with us because I thought the condition was more like a spiritual problem”
“I use to have a neighbor with cleft lips, everything she used were separated, her towel, cutlery and when everyone is sharing food from same bowl, they separated her food”
A psychologist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, Dr. Olabisi Oladapo noted that misinformation, myth and misconceptions about the congenital deformity has contributed in no small measure to broken marriages, with the affected child being traumatized, rejected, and left to wallow in low self-esteem, physical and mental abuse among his or her peers and in the society at large.
Dr. Oladapo noted that the agony of being rejected as a result of having a cleft lips baby calls for a greater concern.
” Misinformation about the condition has crashed a lot of marriages, the mother and the child suffer stigma, it is high time we educate the public that, cleft is not a course but a medical condition that can be corrected through surgery”
On the challenges of accessing care, a social worker and midwife, Mrs. Erioluwa Opakunle, who identified high cost of treatment, societal stigma and lack of awareness as major factors hindering parents from presenting the affected children for medical treatment, explained that with rigorous awarenesses campaign, community engagement, involvement of critical stakeholders such as traditional birth attendants, traditional rulers, midwives, National Orientation Agency, Federal and State Ministries of Health, the narrative would change.
“There is need to involve all stakeholders in the health sector, particularly, to sensitize midwives and the traditional birth attendants, it will go a long way”
Corroborating this, the Vice President and Regional Director of an NGO, Smile Train Africa, Mrs. Nkiruka Obi said the media has a critical role to play in sensitizing the public on the causes of cleft lips and palate as well as how and where to get help.
“The only reason we are where we are is because the media, Journalists have not taken their rightful position in reporting issues around cleft lips and palate”
On how and where to get free medical intervention including the corrective surgery, the project coordinator of Smile Train Africa, Mr. Paul Lobi said his organization, which has a presence in both teaching hospitals and Federal Medical Centres across the thirty-six states of the Federation, including the FCT, Abuja, offers free surgery to children with the condition.
“Accessing free treatment is just a call away, Smile Train has a toll free line, which is 08007645364, what the line does is that when you call, we refer you to our partner hospital close to you and you can be guaranteed of one hundred percent free cleft lips or palate Surgery“
Mr. Lobi said seeking knowledge about Cleft could reinforce family unity as children with such deformity regain their smiles, giving them self confidence after the recommended surgery.
All stakeholders consulted unanimously agreed that achieving a cleft lip-free society would become a reality when everyone assume the role of an advocate to correct the narrative.