Facial mapping technology developed at the University of Glasgow promises to revolutionise the standard of surgery on children with cleft lip and palate in developing countries.

Statistics lecturer Dr Liberty Vittert and Professor Adrian Bowman, Head of the School of Mathematics & Statistics, have developed a 3D-mapping system that measures facial symmetry to within one thousandth of a millimetre.

Facial Mapping to Improve Cleft Lip and Palate Surgery in Developing World

Smile Train changes lives by providing free cleft surgery and comprehensive cleft care to children in developing countries.
Photo: Smile Train

The innovative technique will help train doctors in developing countries to perform surgery on children with cleft deformities. More than 170,000 children are born with a cleft deformity in developing countries every year. A 3D post-surgery photograph is taken of the patient and a mapping algorithm measures facial symmetry, allowing the success of surgery to be objectively assessed and flagging up cases where the surgeon could benefit from more training.

Dr Vittert, the University’s Mitchell lecturer in Statistics, has recently returned from Smyan Hospital in India, where she set up a pilot project with Smile Train, an international cleft charity that empowers local medical professionals in the developing world with training, education, and resources to provide cleft surgery and comprehensive cleft care to children in their own communities. Based on the success of the pilot, the aim is to acquire funding to roll out this project to the entire Smile Train network in more than 72 countries and 1,100 partner hospitals.

More than 170,000 children are born every year in developing countries with a genetic deformity. Smile Train has transformed the lives of children born with cleft lip and palate by empowering local doctors to provide more than one million free cleft surgeries in the developing world.

“Children in developing countries deserve the same high standard of treatment that children receive in developed countries,” Dr Vittert said. “Our 3D facial mapping will level the playing field by improving the standard of facial surgery care for these children.

“Cleft-lip and palate deformities can cause terrible suffering in developing countries, where children become malnourished as breastfeeding is impossible and they have difficulties speaking, hearing and breathing. In some cultures, without proper treatment, children are often abandoned or are ostracised by their communities.

“This system gives surgeons the tool to continually assess their own work, leading to higher standards of care.”

The University of Glasgow team is applying for funding to roll out the pilot including looking to corporate partners for the purchase of portable 3D cameras to donate to partner hospitals.

“Given Smile Train’s ethos of partnering with local hospitals and doctors in developing countries and providing additional training and support for them to perform the surgeries, constant assessment of those surgeons’ performance is essential,” Erin Stieber, Smile Train’s vice president, Strategy and Evaluation, said. “The same medical board standards do not necessarily apply in developing countries as they do in developed countries: the poor deserve the same level of care as the privileged. This project will do that for these children and adults.

“We are excited to work with Dr. Vittert and her team on this project because it has great potential to almost completely eliminate the possibility of poor surgical treatment.”

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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.

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