Children to get the gift of a smile
Hundreds of babies born without a smile on the mainland will receive the gift of a lifetime in the spring thanks to the combined efforts of Operation Smile and Operation Santa Claus.
Each year, one in every 600 babies on the mainland is born with a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both.
A cleft lip can vary from a small split in the lip to severe cases where the split extends to the nose or there are two splits.
A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth, so there is no separation between the bottom of the nose and the mouth.
Both conditions have been linked to genetics or nutrition but there is no clear medical reason for why clefts develop.
A one-hour operation which costs between 5,000 yuan (HK$5,812) and 12,000 yuan is all it takes to change a child's life forever, but for many families this is out of reach and the mainland public health system does not provide cleft surgery.
Since 1991, the US-based charity Operation Smile has been training doctors and nurses on the mainland and sending teams of international volunteers to perform free cleft surgeries, especially in remote and poorer areas.
The organisation, which has a Hong Kong base, has changed the lives of more than 18,000 people on the mainland - mainly young children - through medical missions in remote areas and at a fully staffed hospital in Hangzhou .
'A lot of children can lead fairly normal lives even with a cleft but this doesn't always happen,' David Wong, Operation Smile general manager, said. 'As you can imagine, they may be looked at differently. By giving surgery to a child, we change their personal future and the future of their family.'
Between March and May next year, about 300 children will benefit from the group's Spring Smiles 2011 mission, to be funded by Operation Santa Claus, the annual charity appeal organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK.
'We always kick off our year in spring. Partly, it's a very nice time of the year, partly, it's our beginning of the year. So to have Operation Santa Claus involved in starting off our 20th anniversary, I think it would be very meaningful,' Wong said.
The mission will help about 100 people in rural areas and 200 people will receive treatment at the Hangzhou hospital.
Wong said the doctors operated on children as young as six months and adults in their 70s. 'We generally don't turn people away,' he said.
'Sometimes it is a very amazing experience because they haven't been able to close their mouths all their lives. It's something that most people take for granted.
'Even babies, when they drink milk, they can't close their mouths so that affects their ability to eat and speak.'
Every year, Operation Smile carries out 10 to 12 missions and over the past 20 years, it has visited half the provinces on the mainland, often returning to some areas.
'Seeing the families always reminds me of how fortunate I am,' Wong said. 'The people that we see, honestly really care about their children and that's very moving for us working for Operation Smile.
'There's a certain portion that we will never know; the families that didn't keep their children because they were born with a cleft, so we appreciate the parents of these children who have kept their kids basically and raised them.'
Operation Smile received no government help and was funded mainly through donations in Hong Kong, Wong said.
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