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Section 3 Disease Fact: Cleft Palate
Cleft lip and cleft palate are among the most common birth defects, affecting more than
5,000 infants a year in the United States—or about 1 in 700. A cleft palate is an opening or a
split in the roof of the mouth (palate). Every fetus has this opening when the mouth is
forming in the womb, but the structures usually fuse together during the first 3 months. In
babies with cleft palate, the fusion does not take place or occurs only partially, leaving an
opening. Cleft palate often occurs as an isolated birth defect, but it is also associated with
hundreds of known genetic conditions and syndromes. The defect can lead to problems
eating, talking, and with ear infections.
The first recorded operation on a palate was performed in 500 AD for inflammation
of the uvula. For centuries, literature and interest in clefts were lacking because the
deformity was thought to be due to syphilis.
Misconception has certainly existed regarding the predisposition of children to
genetic defects. In 1887, Lancet: published the following statement by George
Williamson: “[the fourth] law of heredity that [imposes] hideous physical impressions
on the mind of a mother are capable of producing deformity and monstrosity in the
The incidence of cleft palate varies by race, with the highest rate among American
Alcohol and illegal drug consumption in the embryologic period results in many
infants with clefts.
Reportedly, the following celebrities have had successful cleft palate corrective
surgeries: Stacy Keach (Honorary Chairman of the Cleft Palate Association), Jesse
Jackson, Tom Brokaw, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jason Robards.
Sources:, Mayo Clinic, Baby’s Health—Cleft Lip and Palate
(Accessed 01/10/08);, eMedicine from WebMD, Cleft Palate by Michael J.
Biavati, MD (Accessed 01/10/08);, Medline Plus, Cleft Lip
and Palate (Accessed 01/10/08);, Cleft Palate Cuties
(Accessed 01/10/08).