Noma (cancrum oris) is an acute and ravaging gangrenous infection affecting the face. The victims of Noma are mainly children under the age of 6, caught in a vicious circle of extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition. What makes it worse is that this is both preventable and treatable.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 140,000 new cases of Noma occur each year and of these, a mere 10% survive. That means that 126,000 die each year, mainly in sub-Saharan countries from Senegal to Ethiopia, a region known as “the Noma belt”.
Survivors of Noma can arguably be described as the fortunate ones. However, their lives will never be the same and they will suffer three main afflictions – hideous facial disfigurement, functional impairment and social outcast. The scar tissue restricts jaw movement and a child who survives is unlikely ever to be able to speak or eat normally again.
How Facing Africa helps
In 1998, Chris Lawrence heard about the terrible plight of the hundreds of thousands of children suffering the dreadful and shocking destructive and devastating effects of “Noma”. He wanted to do something, anything to help, and contacted Allan Thom, a Consultant Orthodontist whom he had known for several years to ask if he had ever come across the ailment.
Together, Chris and Allan researched, spoke to dozens of people, scoured the internet and finally conceived and registered the charity “Facing Africa – NOMA“. At first they groped around in the dark looking at a variety of countries in West Africa with known incidence of Noma but getting detailed information and answers was laborious and fraught with contradictions. Should they consider finding isolated Noma sufferers and bring them to England for months of complex facial operations or try to make up a team of volunteers to deal with children in their own environments? After weighty deliberations, it was agreed that it is far more effective to put together occasional expeditions to a chosen location in Africa and operate as often as volunteers could be found and as often as could be financially viable.
Since 2000, Facing Africa has been working closely with its European partners AWD Stiftung Kinderhilfe(Germany) and The Dutch Noma Foundation. Since their inception, the organisations have raised over £600,000 (which has been spent on sending the teams each year from Europe to Nigeria (air fares, hotel accommodation, ground transportation medical equipment and supplies), equipment for the hospital in Sokoto, training schemes, physiotherapists from Europe working in Nigeria and Ethiopia and many other essential expenses. Facing Africa also supplied a 4 x 4 vehicle for the hospital in Sokoto which has enabled hospital staff to drive out to remote areas of Northern Nigeria spreading the word about Noma, taking victims in to be treated and inviting local health workers to be trained in all aspects of Noma, its signs and treatment.
In November 2004, the Dutch Noma Foundation sent its first surgical team to the Yakatat 2 Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to do facial reconstructive surgery on Noma patients as well as cleft palate and lip, burns, brutal animal bites and facial tumors. This became an annual team visit and was supported financially by Facing Africa.
In October 2007, Facing Africa put together an all-British team of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses who spent two weeks carrying out a variety of facial reconstructive operations in Addis Ababa. A second Facing Africa surgical team went to Ethiopia again in Oct 2008 and it is now hoped that the number of team visits to Ethiopia can be increased to 2 or 3 in the next year or two.
The cost of surgery is around £800 per patient and has the capability to give a child a new face and with it a new life. However, Facing Africa’s work is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the volunteer surgeons and the kind and generosity of the more fortunate to finance these medical expeditions.
On 9 June 2010 Facing Africa was featured in a BBC2 documentary entitled “Make Me a New Face: Hope for Africa’s Hidden Children” presented by Ben Fogle.