What is a cleft?

The word “cleft” simply means a gap or opening where a gap or opening does not belong. A cleft lip occurs when the soft tissues and upper jaw bones fail to fuse during the first 12 weeks of gestation, causing a gap in the lip that may extend up into the nostril and floor of the nose. This results in a dramatic facial deformity which is obvious to everyone who looks at the child.

A cleft palate occurs when the muscle and bones in the roof of the mouth fail to fuse, creating an opening between the mouth and nose. A cleft palate makes breast-feeding almost impossible, resulting in severe malnutrition. An unrepaired cleft palate also results in severe speech problems that can last a lifetime.

Children can be born with cleft lip, cleft palate, or with both. These conditions are a cause of severe emotional turmoil resulting in parental guilt, family shame, and social ostracization. In many countries, these children are frequently hidden from public view or worse, put to death.

Who is affected?

The incidence of cleft lip, with or without cleft palate, varies over the globe. In the United States, cleft lip and palate is the fourth most common birth defect, affection one in 700 babies. The need in the areas we serve appears higher due to the lack of resources in those countries to address these anomalies. Clefts occur more often in children of Asian, Latino, or Native American descent. Cleft lip is twice as common with boys as girls; however, twice as many girls have cleft palate without a cleft lip.

What are the causes?

Clefts may occur for a variety of reasons. Some are caused by environmental factors, such as a medication the mother may have taken during pregnancy. Others are inherited through the family. Viral or other chemical exposure may be the cause in some situations, or the cleft could be the result of a separate medical condition. Most of the time the cause is unknown and not the fault
of the mother or family.

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