Operation Smile’s Women in Medicine brought together 82 women from across 15 countries and 12 specialities to participate in the organisation’s first-ever all-women surgical programme in Malawi last week.

From 9-17 September 2022 at the Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, the team performed surgeries on 80 children born with cleft lip or palate. Most of the patients were babies under 24 months. Some were older children, and there were also a couple of adults.

Eight South African specialist medical volunteers, including UCT’s Head of Global Surgery, Professor Salome Maswime, joined the first-in-Africa programme. Volunteers from Cape Town included speech therapist Roslyn Lentin, cleft surgeon Dr Gertruida van Niekerk, and paediatrician Dr Hedwig van der Watt.

Operation Smile South Africa executive director Sarah Scarth said that globally, it’s estimated that a child is born with a cleft palate every three minutes. One in 10 of these babies will die of malnourishment – as the mother will struggle to feed the child.

“In Malawi, the estimated cleft palate prevalence is 0.67/1 000 births,” she said. “However, there are only three plastic surgeons (two in public health and one in private) in the whole of Malawi. There is also a paucity of other specialities, such as anaesthetist physicians (only six in the whole country) and paediatricians.”

Scarth went on to explain that Operation Smile is actively investing in education and training in order to strengthen the local health system. “We need to bring in volunteers from other countries, like South Africa – where the standard of medical training is so high – to deliver these surgical programmes to address the enormous backlog.” she added.

We are proud to be making a difference to children’s health beyond our own borders.

[Based on the article that appeared in IOL on 14 September 2022]

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