Welsh couple whose daughter was born with a cleft condition offer support to the Cleft Hospital

The Welsh parents of a baby girl born with a cleft lip and palate have travelled 6,000 miles this weekend to help a family facing an identical ordeal in a country without a national health service.

Imran Ilyas, 27, and wife Alisa were devastated to discover their unborn baby had developed the cleft condition affecting around one in every 600 babies in the UK.

Thanks to the cleft repair programme in the NHS, daughter Areej underwent her first operation to correct her lip when she was just four months old followed by further surgery to correct her palate four months later.

Now, with a tiny scar above her lip the only sign of Areej's condition, the couple from Swansea arrived at Pakistan's only Cleft Hospital in Gujrat in the Punjab on Saturday to sponsor treatment for one of the 10,000 babies born with the condition each year but whose family cannot afford to pay for private health care.

Alisa, 22, said: "We know what it's like to be told your baby has a cleft lip and palate but we were so lucky because we had the wonderful support of the cleft team in Swansea. It made such a difference right from the start.

"We couldn't imagine what we'd have done if it wasn't for the NHS and when we heard about how common cleft lips are in Pakistan, we wanted to do something to help another family because we know exactly what this feels like."

 The young couple met when Imran, originally from Gujrat in the Punjab, moved to England at the age of 16 before he was offered a job in Wales four years later.

He met Alisa, then completing her GCSEs and they fell in love, marrying almost seven years ago. 

Attending their 20-week scan at Swansea's maternity unit, the couple had no inkling of what the images were about to show.

"It was a really big shock," says Alisa. "I had no idea what or why. I thought it was soemthing genetic and was something that had skipped four generations and we didn't know about it.

"We were shown into a little side room, the counselling room obviously because of the box of tissues on the table and that made it worse, to be honest. It really pulled n us and inside we were both crushed."

But, the following day, the couple had been put in contact with the team of cleft specialists, working from one of seven different units in the UK to support families and offer the best possible care.

They were given advice every step of the way, on feeding, nutrition and how to help their baby once she was born, and were also offered a free 3D scan of their baby in the womb so they could prepare themselves before Alisa gave birth.

"It made us realise that she would still be our daughter and we loved her, no matter what, so it had a huge impact on us but in a good way," said Alisa.

"We weren't nervous to look at her when she was born because we knew we were in good hands, with one of the best teams in Wales. They saw us every two weeks leading up to the birth, they would have seen us more often if we'd needed them.

"The support was fantastic and, by the time she was due, we had got over the shock and just accepted everything was going to be fine. All our questions and doubts had been answered"

While Areej completed her surgery even before her first birthday, the couple knew parents from the poorest families in Pakistan have to rely on the generosity of the Cleft Hospital in Gujrat and Yorkshire-based charity Overseas Plastic Surgery Appeal (OPSA).

Plastic surgeons, anaesthetists, theatre staff and nurses from the UK and Ireland travel to Gujrat for twice-early camps at the hospital run by Ggujrat businessman and philanthropist Dr Ijaz Bashir, to help as many children as they can. 

But with 10,000 born with the condition every year, the list keeps growing.

With no national health service and no government support for the children born with cleft conditions in Pakistan, the children face a lifetime of stigmatisation and exclusion from society because of their disfigurements. 

While some have slight cleft deformities requiring moderate surgical interventions, others have severe facial disfigurements causing hearing problems and malnutrition because the children struggle to feed.

But the Opsa surgeons, who donate their time and skills for free, give them a chance of more normal lives by repairing the damage to their faces while linking up with speech therapists and orthodontists to provide a holistic approach to treatment.

Dr Bashir is now in talks with Alisa and Imran to identify a family they could sponsor through their child's treatment. Alisa can now speak Urdhu as well as Punjabi and is playing a key role in negotiations at the Cleft Hospital alongside her husband.

Imran said: "We want to support the hospital not just financially but physically as well and promote the work that goes on here. There are other families in the UK who have benefited from the NHS treatment and I'm sure others would be willing to help a charity helping people who cannot afford to pay for surgery.

"It just feels like the right thing to do."

to support the work of the OPSA team in Gujrat.