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Oscar could make India’s cleft-lipped kids smile

By Kavita Bajeli-Datt,IANS,

New Delhi : The Academy Award for “Smile Pinki” has brought into sharp focus the plight of children with cleft palates in India who live forever with emotional scars. But doctors here are hoping that Oscar glory for the film will change much of that.

There are one million Indian kids who suffer from cleft lip and palate and most of them undergo constant humiliation for it – just like Pinki Sonkar, the eight-year-old protagonist of the documentary who has had a simple but effective corrective surgery and even flashed her best smiles at the Oscars ceremony in the US Monday.

“The NGOs working in this field would get a lot of encouragement and their movement would get recognition. It is a momentous occasion for all those working with the NGO Smile Train vigorously for so many years,” Vinay Aggarwal, honorary secretary general of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), told IANS.

He was referring to Smile Train, a US-based international charity which conducts free surgeries for children and which was behind Pinki’s surgery.

The 39-minute “Smile Pinki”, which centres on her, bagged the best short documentary Oscar and shows how she was a social outcaste before surgery transformed her. Experts are hoping that the Oscar will also create awareness about the procedure in the interior parts of the country.

“The award would send a message in each and every village where children are suffering so that they get treatment in time. I personally feel it is wonderful, especially for the healthcare sector,” he added, pointing out that such children should be treated before they start to speak.

About 35,000 children in India are born with a cleft lip every year and less than 50 percent of them go for treatment, said Aggarwal.

Many children don’t get the treatment because of lack of awareness and economic difficulties, he said.

Satish Kalra, regional director, South Asia, Smile Train, agreed that the award would help their movement.

“It will help us. The problem of the cleft lip has now reached the drawing rooms of people and this would mean mass awareness. People would now know that it is a simple defect that can be cured. It also means that the parents of such children can be assured that their child could also smile like Pinki,” Kalra told IANS.

“If it is not treated in time, a child lives a life full of emotional scars. In India, there is a backlog of one million children who need to get the treatment,” Kalra said.

Working for the past 10 years internationally, Smile Train’s Indian chapter was opened in 2000 and has 166 centres where 250 surgeons work.

Among these surgeons is Subodh Kumar Singh, who performed the corrective surgery on Pinki.

Varanasi-based Singh, who accompanied Pinki and her father Rajender Sonkar from Rampur Dabai village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district for the Oscars, told IANS that the “award is not just for Pinki but for the thousands of Pinkis who are waiting to emerge out of a life of anonymity”.

The documentary was made by American filmmaker Megan Mylan for the NGO Smile Train.

There are 4.7 million cleft-lipped children in the developing world who need this surgery.

All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) paediatric surgeon V. Bhatnagar said the problem needs only a small surgery: “It is not a rare problem that cannot be treated.”

Jacob M. Puliyel, head of the paediatrics department at St. Stephens Hospital, was not so confident that the documentary would have an everlasting impact in India.

“I really don’t know whether the focus will shift towards cleft palate surgery or not as very little of the surgery was shown in the documentary.”

But Kalra was hopeful. “Even if one child’s life changes like Pinky, it would mean a lot.”