The Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN) Universe (2016), Miss Debbie Collins, since her crowning has ever wanted to be different from others before her by taking up tasks that will see her touch the lives of kids with deformities. It was no surprise then when SmileTrain, an international non-governmental organisationrecognised her as its Ambassador in Nigeria. Since then, she has traversed rural areas across the country advocating for these kinds of children and bringing smiles to their faces. Obioma Ogbonnaya joined her for such advocacy works in Gwagwalada and Abaji areas in the outskirts of Abuja
Cleft lip and palate, according to experts, are variations of a type of congenital deformity caused by abnormal facial development during gestation period leading to non-fusion and continuity of facial structures before birth. The defects can also occur together as cleft-lip and palate.
Interestingly, several epidemiological studies have been carried out in different parts of the world and the prevalence of cleft lip and palate has been well documented in the United States of America, Asia, Europe and Africa. All the reports show different figures in the different parts of the world. In Nigeria, however, about 6000 children are born with this defect yearly according to statistics from Smile Train, an American non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is at the forefront of repairing cleft lips and palate worldwide.
Some of these children are being killed in some rural and urban areas like Abuja and other cities in Nigeria. Parents of such kids with cleft lip or palate are often subjected to severe stress levels of social anxiety as they anticipate the reduced social skills of their wards on their way into adolescence and full adulthood. This problem, experts say impacts on the individual’s self esteem, social skills and behaviours, which could be associated with discrimination, stigmatisation, social and economic isolation.
Also, patients living with this condition are often ostracised from social circles and banished to live mostly in the rural areas because even their immediate relations are not proud to be identified with them. Even in the 21st Century Nigeria, there is anecdotal evidence that some parents throw away their children born with this condition into the river or bury them alive due to traditional believes and superstition associated to cleft lip and palate deformity.
Interestingly these can be corrected just with 45 minutes surgery and absolutely free in Nigeria and other West African countries courtesy of Smile Train organisation. And knowing that most of such parents and victims are poor, SmileTrain even provides stipends for transportation for them to access solution in partner hospitals located across Nigeria.
Surgery as the immediate option treats disfigurement but it’s also beneficial in managing both the physical and psychological perspective of this condition as it results in increased self-esteem, self-confidence and satisfaction with one’s own appearance.
Miss Debbie Collins, current Miss Universe Nigeria and the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN) finds all these fascinating and believes she can contribute her own quota in bringing smiles on the faces of people living with cleft lips and palate in the country as the Ambassador of Smile Train in the country. Her first advocacy assignment took her to some rural areas in Abuja where Smile Train is making an impact on the scourge through advocacy and surgery with its partner hospitals and organisations.
Recently, the MBGN was at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital (UATH), Gwagwalada to meet with the children with cleft and palate patients in what appears to be her first advocacy work and meet-the-patients tour. On hand to welcome the MBGN Universe and the team of Smile Train, Mrs. Nkeiruka Obi and Miss Victoria Awazie, was Dr. Amina Abubakar, a surgeon.
Dr. Abubakar, who introduced her team to her guests, said her team of advocates have intensified their advocacy in the rural areas of Gwagwalada and environs, which has been responsible for the awareness, which as a result there has been surgeries of cleft lips and palate every week in the hospital. She said that her advocacy team in their daily routine, discovered that parents of these children with the deformity are equally poor and cannot even transport themselves to the general hospital hence they are given stipend for transportation and feeding and even funds to begin little business when they get back as the surgery is always free of charge.
She told the MBGN Universe and Smile Train team that parents still kill children born with such defects thinking it’s a bad omen. She mentioned a particular case where a woman who delivered such baby in one of the homes of Rural Birth Attendants and before her team from the hospital could reach them, the mother of the woman had suffocated and killed the baby apparently with a pillow. “You won’t believe that in some rural areas here in Gwagwalada that they still kill such children and even twins,” Dr. Amina said to the bewilderment of the Miss Collins.
The surgeon also told her guests that she discovered that such children when they are brought to the hospital are too weak to be operated because of malnutrition and poor feeding, and so there’s this additional burden to feed them and teach the mothers how to feed these kids, because their feeding has to be special because of their defects. “They have to be feed for a period time when they are strong enough for surgery,” Dr. Abubakar said.
She said that the advocacy team has to sustain its advocacy work, using the churches, mosques, women meeting groups and market places. She said at times mass media is ineffective because the people are illiterate and don’t even have access to the mass media as a result of poverty.
This way she said more impact will be made in order to tell the people that there’s no superstition about cleft lip and palate and that it could be corrected free of charge through surgery, and the victims could live a normal life thereafter.
At the office of the Medical Director of the Teaching Hospital, Dr. Abu ShehuHaruna, Mrs. Obi, the Smile Train Regional Director West/Central Africa, told the director that as partner hospital they came to see how the hospital is doing and the challenges its partner doctors are facing in the treatment of cleft lip and palate as well as to introduce the MBGN Universe queen, the Smile Train ambassador to its partners. She commended the hospital team lead by Dr. AminaAbubakar and how they have carried out their work with passion even when the funds are delayed to come in. She commended their transparency and accountability.
While commending the MBGN-Universe queen for championing this kind of cause, Dr. Haruna promised the Smile Train team that the hospital will continue to partner the NGO to fight the scourge of cleft lip and palate. He said the project is safe in the hands of Dr. Abubakar and her team of surgeons and would always support and encourage them in doing their best.
“It has been our desire to put smiles on the faces of the children and people with cleft lip and palate. I am happy that we have made so much progress in working together and we will continue to work together to put smile on the faces of the children, we appreciate the efforts of the Smile Train management for partnering us in this onerous task,” Dr. Haruna said.
The Queen also met with cleft lip patients and some victims who have been operated on. One of them is 10-year-old Daniel Okeke from Ebonyi State. Daniel’s case was so bad that he has to be operated twice. Dr. Abubakar said he needs to be touched again here and there to make his case perfect so that he can speak very well because his cleft lip and palate affected his speech.
When Daniel was born, there was attempt to patch up the cleft lip but was not done professionally hence they had to be referred to the Smile Train project at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital centre.
His elder brother, EnyinnayaOkeke said Daniel all these while lived a secluded life both in school and at home. He said with the level of surgery he has undergone, “some children still run away from him like they have seen a monster. It has not been easy for the young man, but we will get there where he will be a happy person and be able to mix very well with others.”
A mother, Mrs. Zainab Musa from Gwagwalada, who brought her six month old baby boy Musa to the hospital told Miss Collins and Smile Train team that she never heard or seen a baby with cleft lip before now. She said since Musa was born that she has been hiding him from public view, until she heard about the Smile Train intervention. Zainab said she can’t wait to see her son operated on and restored to normal human being.
Done with Gwagwalada, the advocacy team of the Smile Train team moved to Abaji area of Abuja and the first port of call was the secretariat of the local government, where they met with the Secretary of the council, Mr. Matthew Okpegu, who commended the Beauty Queen and the Smile Train management for choosing his council as one of the advocacy local governments in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). He promised the support of the council in the sensitisation process by mobilising the Councillor for Health and his staff, especially when the services by the Smile Train are free.
The team of the Smile Train and local government council led by Mr. Okpegu moved on to the Palace of the Ona of Abaji, His Highness Adamu Baba Yinusa, who gave a royal blessing to the work of the team in his Kingdom. He advised the local government council to support the Smile Train team in doing their job.
In his jovial best, the traditional ruler commended the Beauty Queen for taking the trouble in coming to his domain, a rural community for her advocacy work and wished her the best in her reign. From the Ona’s Palace Debbie Collins hit the road for her advocacy work in the rural communities of Abaji. She later described her experience as very fulfilling.