Global Smile Foundation works with student interns from Boston-area colleges and universities, including U Mass Lowell and Bentley University. We enjoy meeting motivated young people interested in making an impact in the global health community and learning from them as much as we hope to provide valuable experience from the NGO perspective.
Natalie Targ, our 2023 Public Health Intern from U Mass Lowell, shared her thoughts on cleft in the world of public health.
In the United States, 1 in every 1,600-2,800 babies is born with some type of cleft, but you would never know that. Rarely do you see a child with a cleft lip and/or palate since most families have access to care to treat cleft before it can seriously impact a child’s life. However, this is not the case in countries like Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, and Lebanon – all countries in which Global Smile Foundation operates, yet not an exhaustive list of countries that struggle to provide cleft care. Without access to timely intervention, babies born with cleft lip and/or palate have a harder time breastfeeding, are more at risk for ear infections and hearing loss, experience dental problems, and have difficulty developing clear speech. That isn’t to forget the psychological struggles a child with cleft experiences because they look different than their peers.
As a public health student who has spent the past few months working with Global Smile Foundation, I think it is time to start looking at the prevalence of cleft lips and palates as a public health issue. In my eyes, it is a maternal and child health crisis that illustrates the importance of building strong public health infrastructure. These birth defects represent major gaps in the continuum of care when an individual has a child, gaps that a sturdy public health system can fill. An absence of this system makes cleft care even more complex, raising questions like:
- Did the mother receive prenatal care?
- Is there adequate health education about the effects of drinking and smoking during pregnancy?
- How far away is the nearest hospital or community health center?
- Is infant formula easily accessible and affordable for mothers who cannot breastfeed their babies with cleft palates?
- Can nearby medical facilities perform cleft surgeries?
These are only a few of many questions that relate back to the social determinants of health and can predispose children to developing cleft and facing worse outcomes once they are born.
When doing philanthropic work in other countries, it is imperative that global health organizations provide comprehensive care that works to address these social determinants of health. Especially with cleft care, it would be a disservice to not help these countries with high prevalence of cleft to address these public health problems. That is what makes Global Smile Foundation unique. They are committed to not only providing access to these surgeries but to also to furthering research and advocacy efforts to support the communities in which they serve. It is imperative that we continue to empower these organizations, which in turn empower these disenfranchised communities, to fill the gaps in their public health systems.