Even during the pandemic, the Smile Train chugs along

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THE COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic has managed to stop a great many things in the world, but not everything.

“Another baby is born with cleft every three minutes — even during a pandemic,” said Miss Universe Catriona Gray, the Global Ambassador for cleft charity Smile Train, in a public service announcement released last July. This sentiment was reiterated by Smile Train Southeast Asia Director Kimmy Flaviano who showed the video last month during a webinar to give updates of the charity’s activities during the pandemic. “During the pandemic, the world doesn’t really stop,” said Ms. Flaviano. “Mothers are still giving birth to people with cleft.”

Smile Train, is arguable the world’s largest cleft charity, treating children with cleft lips and palates (Forbes lists it as #90 of the 100 Largest US Charities in 2019). It was founded in 1999, and established a presence in the Philippines in 2001, where it has since performed about 63,000 surgeries, with 5000 surgeries done every year on average. But due to restrictions on movement because of the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as limited capacities in hospitals, Ms. Flaviano reported that “In the last three to four months of our fiscal year, we saw a drop in the number of cases [of cleft palate surgeries].”

The charity has supported more than 500 surgeries from March to August, said Ms. Flaviano, as well as provided support for 4,101 surgeries for the fiscal year of 2020. This presents a drop from 5,270 surgeries performed in the fiscal year of 2019.

However, Dr. Nikki Valencia, a Smile Train partner plastic surgeon, said that the De La Salle University Medical Center in Cavite is already preparing to perform surgeries in the near future. In addition, she also said that a handful of hospitals have already begun to resume their cleft palate surgery activities. “There are already some partners who are doing surgeries for cleft palates,” she said.

“Smile Train also has protocols in terms of when and who can receive surgeries,” said Ms. Flaviano.

“It’s not just about surgery,” she explained. “What we strive to do is to be able to provide comprehensive cleft care.”

Because of that, the charity has increased its awareness campaigns. These include Facebook live sessions where new mothers of children with cleft ask questions, among other concerns. “A lot of questions go up when they’re not able to speak to a doctor, or go to a clinic,” said Ms. Flaviano.

Speech therapy sessions and remote consultations are also part of Smile Train’s programs, due in part to its relative convenience, thanks to telehealth and telemedicine partners and programs. “This is something that can be done, even if they don’t go to the hospital,” said Ms. Flaviano. They’ve had over 100 patients, with over 500 sessions since April 1. “These are especially for older patients, who [may not] have the same self-confidence to apply for a job, or don’t have the skills to apply for a job. We’re trying to provide them with different avenues to be able to support them,” she said.

“Even during a pandemic, Smile Train is here to help. They can depend on us, and they can entrust their child to us,” said Ms. Flaviano.

For inquiries, schedules, and sessions, visit the Smile Train Facebook page at — JLG