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A correctable disfigurement of face: Cleft lip and palate

  • By Dr. Ananya Mandal

The Times of India reports that "With an incidence of 7 per 1000 children, cleft lip and palate deformity is one of the most common deformities among Indian children." The number of infants born every year with cleft lip and cleft palate in India is 28,600. This means 78 affected infants are born every day or 3 infants with clefts are born every hour.

Cleft lip and palate develop early in pregnancy where lack of adequate amounts of tissues lead to two parts of the face failing to join adequately at the middle.

A cleft lip or hare lip (as it is commonly called) refers to separation of the two sides of the upper lip. There appears a narrow opening or gap over the skin of the upper lip. This separation may sometimes extend beyond the base of the nose and may involve the upper gum and/or the bones of the upper jaw.

A cleft palate refers to the gap between the two edges of the roof of the mouth, causing it to remain open at birth. The bony front portion of the roof of the mouth or the hard palate may be involved alone, or along with the soft palate or the soft back portion of the roof of the mouth.

Since lip and the palate develop separately, it is possible to have a cleft lip without a cleft palate or vice versa.

Causes of developing cleft lip and cleft palate:

The exact cause of cleft lip and palate is unknown. Some research, however, suggests that these clefts are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The risk of such clefts thus can be reduced by adopting a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy. This includes avoidance of smoking, alcohol and having a healthy diet to avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy.

Cleft lip and palate can occur alone with no other problems or defects. This is called non-syndromic clefts. They may also occur as part of other birth defects and then may be called part of a syndrome.

Cleft lip and palate may occur on one side (unilateral) or may occur on both sides (bilateral). Unilateral cleft lip and palate is more common than bilateral cleft lip and palate. Left-sided cleft lip and palate is twice as common as right-sided cleft lip and palate. The reason for this is unclear. A cleft lip or combined cleft lip and palate are seen more commonly in male babies. Cleft palate alone is more common in female babies.

The face of the baby usually develops around 5th and 9th weeks of pregnancy thus this defect may arise early in pregnancy.

Treatment of cleft lip and palate:

Cleft lip and palate is usually corrected using cosmetic or plastic surgery. Results are usually very good. After treatment, most children have a normal appearance. To prevent and correct associated speech problems and dental problems, treatment is also sought from speech and language therapists, as well as dental surgeons (orthodontic specialists).

Excellent results may be seen if the specialists work in tandem.


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