Operation Smile

Helping kids with cleft palates and cleft lips.

Jim Williams

HealthKey.com contributor

June 15, 2010


It all begins with a smile. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, and it isn't … and here's why.

Sadly, more than 200,000 children are born with cleft lips and cleft palates each year. In fact, every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft condition. Many can't speak. Many can't eat or drink normally. But Operation Smile, Inc., a worldwide medical children's charity based in Norfolk, Virginia, hopes to change that one smile at a time.

Since 1982, Operation Smile has mobilized a large organization of dedicated medical volunteers to provide free surgeries to children in more than 50 countries. The organization, which was founded by plastic surgeons, has treated more than 145,000 children with cleft palates and cleft lips.

Defining Cleft Palates and Cleft Lip

Oral-facial clefts are birth defects in which the tissues of the mouth or lip don't form properly during fetal development. A cleft lip may be accompanied by an opening in the bones of the upper jaw 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.

According to the World Health Organization International Collaborative Research on Craniofacial Anomalies, clefts occur in 1 in 700 to 1,000 births in the U.S., making it one of the most common major birth defects.

Early Surgery

Most surgeons believe a cleft lip should be repaired by the time a baby is 3 months old, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. 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. Obviously, the success of any surgical procedure is dependent upon a child's health and the severity of the cleft lip or cleft palate.

Making a Difference

Operation Smile boasts one of the world's largest volunteer networks with thousands of medical and non-medical professionals around the world. These volunteers provide thousands of free medical exams and surgeries while restoring dignity and changing lives.

If you'd like to donate your time or make a financial contribution, call 1-888-OPSMILE (888-677-6453) or visit operationsmile.org.