Dental Tribune USA
A local mission in Guatemala City helps children born with orofacial clefts and other conditions of the head and face. (Photo: Operation Smile)

During cleft awareness month, Operation Smile shares details of its research

By Dental Tribune USA
July 12, 2021

July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month, a time to raise awareness and improve understanding of orofacial clefts and other conditions of the head and face. Worldwide, it’s estimated every 3 minutes a child is born with a cleft condition that can drastically affect their ability to breathe, eat and speak.

The specific causes of cleft conditions are still unknown, but Operation Smile is committed to learning more about genetic and environmental factors that likely cause cleft in order to help treat more people.

In honor of National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month, Operation Smile’s vice president of research has offered to share the details of the groundbreaking research the organization is leading to help people with cleft conditions in low- and middle-income countries.

Allyn Auslander, PhD MPH, is the associate vice president of research at Operation Smile. Part of her job entails planning studies, designing data collection tools, analyzing data and writing scientific manuscripts.

“I believe that data and research is extremely powerful, so everything I do I try to make sure I can see the connection between that work and how it will improve a child’s life,” Auslander said. “Whether that is interpreting outcomes data to improve care, or researching potential environmental risk factors of cleft to prevent disease.”

Auslander’s background in both statistics and epidemiology allow her to pursue her passion for global health, specifically her current work in global surgery.

“There is nothing I enjoy more than traversing the globe meeting and working with other passionate individuals and organizations aimed at creating a global community and improving lives around the world,” Auslander said.

Operation Smile revolutionized cleft surgery globally in 1982. With nearly four decades of experience as one of the largest surgical volunteer-based nonprofits, Operation Smile staff, its private-public partnerships and thousands of volunteers have improved the health and dignity of patients with cleft conditions, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live lives of greater quality and confidence.

Operation Smile is leading cleft research through its International Family Study (IFS) with the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. As of 2020, the IFS team has collected more than 17,000 individual saliva samples representing more than 7,200 families, creating the largest and most diverse genetic repository of cleft samples globally.

“There is a lot of research happening at Operation Smile. There is research around outcomes, barriers to care, health systems strengthening, education and prevention to name a few,” Auslander said.

Most cleft research to date has focused on people from high-income countries, where care is accessible and available. Operation Smile’s research is groundbreaking in that it’s focused on analyzing genetic and environmental factors affecting people that have not been historically included in these types of studies.

“If you look at cleft research, the most commonly cited risk factor is women smoking during pregnancy. However, this is much more relevant in high-income countries and smoking rates for women are extremely low in the countries where Operation Smile works,” Auslander said. “That’s why in our study we looked at exposure to smoke from cooking over an open fire, which we found increased the risk of cleft by 50 percent. If we never studied cleft in low- and middle-income countries, we wouldn’t be able to look at risk factors that don’t exist in high income countries.”

While one cleft surgery can bring immediate transformation to a child’s life in as little as 45 minutes, Operation Smile is committed to providing patients with health that lasts — being there to offer patients additional surgeries, dentistry, psychological services, speech therapy and other essential cleft treatments. Its training and education programs elevate local surgical standards and entire health systems to aid safe surgery and strengthen a global network to reach more people earlier in their lives.

More information about Operation Smile’s transformative and healing work is available by visiting operationsmile.org or by following @operationsmile on social media.

(Source: Operation Smile)

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