World Health Day 2021: Operation Smile’s Chief Medical Officer Promotes Access to Safe and Effective Surgical Care

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Dr. Ruben Ayala leads Operation Smile’s efforts to build a fairer, healthier world

Nine-year-old Aljay and her mother, Anita, during a 2015 Operation Smile medical mission to Cauayan City, Philippines. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Operation Smile’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ruben Ayala, is leading the surgical nonprofit’s global health policy efforts that are promoting access to safe, timely, and effective medical care to underserved communities around the world.

Operation Smile’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ruben Ayala, is leading the surgical nonprofit’s global health policy efforts that are promoting access to safe, timely, and effective medical care to underserved communities around the world.

Celebrated annually on April 7, World Health Day aims to draw attention to topics of concern affecting people around the globe. The World Health Organization designated the theme for 2021 as “Building a fairer, healthier world” and encourages leaders to monitor health inequities and ensure that all people can access quality health services when and where they need them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that many people have better access to health services based on the conditions in which they are born, grow and live. In many of the countries that Operation Smile serves, early cleft surgery isn't always accessible due to the availability of qualified medical staff, lack of financial resources, and other factors that make surgery safe and available. The impact of the pandemic has been harshest on communities which were already vulnerable, more exposed to the disease and less likely to have access to quality health care services.

“We have watched dismayed, how the number of children needing treatment has increased during the pandemic,” said Dr. Ayala, “Understanding the enormity of the challenge, we have pulled together our knowledge, people and resources. Our leaders around the world have laid out country-specific plans for adapting, evolving and creating environments where care can still be delivered safely. Cautiously, but optimistically, we carry on the work where possible, sending a clear message to our patients that, in spite of the pandemic, we have not abandoned them, and we never will.”

Through its work providing life-changing surgery and related care to underserved communities, Operation Smile is helping to build a fairer, healthier world. The global nonprofit remains committed to providing patients with health that lasts and continues to advocate for access to quality health services in areas of the world where it is needed most.

“We must collectively work to strengthen surgical systems to be more reliable in order to create a fairer and healthier world,” said Desmond Jumbam, Operation Smile’s health system strategist. “We must engage with policy and decision makers to ensure that they prioritize health care, including surgical systems, to be able to care for their own people.”

Jumbam added: “Operation Smile’s policy and advocacy team aims to generate the evidence needed inform the development of policies that prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering caused by cleft lip, cleft palate and other surgically treatable conditions. For policies that have been developed, we aim to move them into implementation. We aim to do this in partnership with local and international partners, leveraging our collective strengths to challenge the status quo. To attain this lofty goal, we must all work together and urgently.

Operation Smile provides free reconstructive cleft surgery to people in underserved countries and believes that access to safe surgery is not a privilege but a universal human right. During his career with Operation Smile, Dr. Ayala has planned, executed and overseen surgical programs in more than 40 countries. He also oversaw the establishment of Operation Smile care centers and hospital partnerships in low- and middle-income countries that offer year-round health services to patients and families affected by cleft conditions.

About Operation Smile

Operation Smile revolutionized cleft surgery globally in 1982. With nearly four decades of experience as one of the largest surgical volunteer-based nonprofits, Operation Smile staff, its private-public partnerships and thousands of volunteers have improved the health and dignity of patients with cleft conditions, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live lives of greater quality and confidence. While one cleft surgery can bring immediate transformation to a child’s life in as little as 45 minutes, Operation Smile is committed to providing patients with health that lasts—being there to offer patients additional surgeries, dentistry, psychological services, speech therapy and other essential cleft treatments. Its training and education programs elevate local surgical standards and entire health systems to aid safe surgery and strengthen a global network to reach more people earlier in their lives. You can learn more about its transformative and healing work by visiting or by following @operationsmile on social media.


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Julie Dion
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