For Cleft Palate Correction, a Facial Plastic Surgeon Is Key

Cleft lip and/or cleft palate is one of the most common congenital abnormalities in the world; in the United States alone, it is estimated that 1 in 700 births results in clefting of the lip and/or palate. 1 in 1,700 babies is born with cleft palate alone. 1 in 2,800 babies is born with cleft lip alone, and 1 in 1,600 are born with both. Despite their prevalence, repairing these defects properly requires the expertise of a doctor who’s been trained in reconstructive surgery of the face—and this is where The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) comes in. Here in the United States, patients have access to this esteemed group of facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons in addition to interdisciplinary teams designed to ensure patients live full and productive lives. However, “in less developed countries, patients simply don’t have access to this kind of team care,” says Dr. Sherard A. Tatum, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon and AAFPRS president. “Individuals can perform the surgery, but there is often a lack of coordination among the cleft surgeon and other specialists, including speech therapists, orthodontics, and audiologists.” 

Left uncorrected, cleft lip and cleft palate can result in feeding difficulties, ear infections and hearing loss, dental problems, severe speech difficulties, and an increased risk of both infant and child mortality. Patients’ mental health is often impacted as well, as children who struggle with self-confidence as a result of their deformities often develop anxiety and depression in adolescence and adulthood. 

To say that surgery to correct cleft lip and palate is life-changing is truly an understatement—and to ensure patients in developing countries have access to this important healthcare, the Educational and Research Foundation for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS Foundation) established its nonprofit, AAFPRS FACE TO FACE International Program, a humanitarian and educational surgical exchange program, in 1992. Over the last 30-plus years, AAFPRS member surgeons have engaged in this vital, life-altering pro bono work in many diverse areas around the globe. And in 2014, the AAFPRS Foundation also developed and implemented our AAFPRS FACE TO FACE Database to enable the AAFPRS Foundation to better track its humanitarian programs activity, to assist in the care (and follow-up care) being provided, and to allow for data to be collected and analyzed to enhance such surgical activities, while allowing for research in this arena. Since the database has started collecting such important information in 2014, AAFPRS member surgeons have provided more than 4,000 life-changing, pro bono reconstructive cleft lip and palate surgeries to patients in Peru, Vietnam, Colombia, India, China, Cambodia, Haiti, Tanzania, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Ecuador—surgeries that make it possible for infants and children who are otherwise unable to eat, speak, and even smile properly to live full and productive lives.

For Dr. Tatum, a renowned reconstructive surgery specialist, the opportunity to work with AAFPRS FACE TO FACE is what drives him as a surgeon: "I’ve been involved with humanitarian work like this for over 30 years, so I’ve had the privilege of seeing patients grow up into happy and fulfilled adults. The impact the team has on this process is priceless; there’s truly nothing better than seeing tears of joy in a mom’s eyes when she sees her baby for the first time after surgery."

Today, more than 30 years into this incredible endeavor, AAFPRS FACE TO FACE continues to grow. To maximize impact and ensure sustainability, AAFPRS FACE TO FACE surgeons collaborate with international organizations, NGOs, and local governments to offer on-the-ground educational programs and training sessions. Ultimately, by pooling resources and expertise; empowering local medical communities to independently address cleft palate cases; and making the most of technological advances within the field, the AAFPRS Foundation and AAFPRS member surgeons aim to create a united front against the challenges posed by cleft palate and related conditions.

“Thanks to the dedication of teams willing to donate their time to go on these missions and donations from sponsors, AAFPRS FACE TO FACE is able to deliver this care and teaching to an ever-increasing number of needy sites,” says Tatum.

To learn more about the AAFPRS Foundation’s FACE TO FACE humanitarian programs, click here.


The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery is the world’s largest specialty association for facial plastic surgery. It represents more than 2,200 facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons throughout the world. The AAFPRS is a National Medical Specialty Society of the American Medical Association (AMA) and holds an official seat in both the AMA House of Delegates and the American College of Surgeons board of governors. AAFPRS members are board certified surgeons whose focus is surgery of the face, head, and neck (inclusive of Rhinoplasty and Facial Rejuvenation). More information at

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