Every Three Minutes...

a child is born with a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. Annually, that is an estimated 175,200 children world-wide.

Infants born with cleft conditions have nine times the risk of dying within the first year of life.

Kurt Ruzel Ybanez, 4 years old Male, before surgery with his Mother is Michelle

But you can offer them hope.

With surgery, a child can have a brand-new, beautiful smile in as little as 45 minutes.

Operation Smile exists to make sure everyone gets the safe corrective surgery they need wherever they live in the world. It is surgery that changes a child’s life forever…and it changes families, communities, countries and yes, the world.

Our Vision

At Operation Smile we believe every child suffering from cleft lip or cleft palate deserves exceptional surgical care. We envision a future where health and dignity are improved through safe surgery.

In high-income countries like Canada, surgery to fix cleft conditions is common and is usually done before a child is 18 months old.

In low and middle-income countries, where we conduct our programs, it can take years to receive treatment. Children and their families face enormous hurdles that prevent them from getting the surgical care they need. Many people have to travel great distances for care and most simply have no money to pay for surgery or healing medications.

Sometimes people just don’t know that help is available. Sometimes there is simply no care to access.

BILLIONS of people lack access to any surgical care.

BILLIONS MORE lack access to safe and well-timed surgery.

ONLY 6.3% of an estimated 312.9 million surgical procedures performed each year go to the poorest third of the global population.

Madalena Moises, Female, 21 years old, UCL

Lack of access to surgery means that easily treatable conditions like cleft conditions can become fatal.

Our Mission

Through our expertise in treating cleft lip and cleft palate, we create solutions that deliver safe surgery to people where it’s needed most.

Why Cleft Conditions are Serious

Clara with her Father before Surgery

When left untreated, having a cleft lip and/or cleft palate becomes life-threatening and a lifelong hardship. Child abandonment and even infanticide can occur when a family is unwilling or unable to raise a child with cleft. Their child’s condition is sometimes viewed as an extra hardship in a life already filled with daily challenges like poverty and food insecurity.

Having a cleft condition can cause serious health issues if not corrected: difficulty speaking, language development, dental problems, ear infections and hearing loss, and difficulty eating and swallowing can lead to malnutrition and even starvation.

Ramata before her surgery, Ghana 2015

Social isolation of children and their families is common in many countries and cultures. This can lead to economic hardship and poverty, compounding the physical and emotional effects of a cleft condition.

These are hardships we believe no one should have to bear.

FAQ's About Cleft

What is a cleft lip and cleft palate?

A cleft is an opening in the lip, the roof of the mouth or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. A cleft lip may be accompanied by an opening in the bones of the upper jaw and/or the upper gum. A cleft palate occurs when the two sides of a palate do not join together, resulting in an opening in the roof of the mouth. A cleft lip and palate can occur on one side or both sides. A child can suffer from a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.

What causes cleft lip and cleft palate?

The exact cause is unknown. Cleft lips and cleft palates are congenital defects that occur early in embryonic development. Scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as maternal illness, drugs or malnutrition, may lead to a cleft lip or cleft palate. If one child in a family is born with a cleft, the risk increases by 2 to 4 percent that future children in the family will suffer from the same defect.

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be prevented?

Scientists are researching methods to prevent cleft lip and cleft palate. One finding, according to research studies, is that mothers who take multivitamins containing folic acid before conception and during the first two months of pregnancy may reduce their risk of giving birth to a baby with a cleft condition.

Does a cleft lip or cleft palate cause problems for a child?

Ear disease and dental problems occur frequently, as do problems with proper speech development. Children who suffer from a cleft lip and/or cleft palate may have difficulty eating. To address these issues, a child and family may work with a team of specialists — a pediatrician, a plastic surgeon, dental specialist, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist), a speech-language pathologist and audiologist, a geneticist and a psychologist/social worker.

Can cleft lip and cleft palate be repaired?

Yes. Cleft lip and cleft palate surgery provides excellent results. A pediatrician and a plastic surgeon work with a child’s parents to choose the best timing for surgery. Most surgeons agree that a cleft lip should be repaired by the time a baby is 3 months old. To repair the partition of mouth and nose as early as possible, a cleft palate generally is repaired between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Any surgical procedure is dependent upon a child’s general health and the nature of the cleft lip or cleft palate.

How prevalent are cleft lip and cleft palate worldwide?

This kind of birth defect happens more often than you may realize. It is estimated that, worldwide, a child is born every 3 minutes with a cleft — about one in 500-750 births.

I live in Canada. Why have I never seen a child with a cleft here?

Cleft conditions (orofacial defects) are a common birth defect in Canada. However, most clefts are repaired during early childhood. In other countries, reconstructive surgery often takes place later in life due to a variety of reasons including lack of medical care and financial resources. Higher rates of unrepaired clefts in older children may also be attributed to cultural differences.