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Dr. Stephen Tahta and his wife Stefne of Missoula, Montana started the Children’s Fund of Ethiopia- an organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of Rheumatic Heart Valve Disease (RHVD). It is estimated RHVD kills over 400,000 people each year worldwide, most often children and young adults. Rheumatic fever (RF) is the main culprit behind RHVD and RF is most often caused by a streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever. Left untreated, about 3% of streptococcal infection cases advance to rheumatic fever, and about 70% of those cases are diagnosed with RHVD. RHVD causes inflammation in the heart muscle and fibrosis of the heart valves which left untreated can lead to stroke, heart failure, and even death.
Streptococcal infections can be easily treated with antibiotics like penicillin and amoxicillin, but many African children are miles from any kind of medical clinic and may not have the resources to get there other than walking, and may not be able to afford the potentially life-saving medications once they’re there. The difficulty lies in making these medications available to everyone and educating the public that untreated throat infections may lead to much bigger issues and even death just a few years down the road.
The ultimate dream is to stop RHVD at the source by treating streptococcal infections as they occur with antibiotics. If those infections do advance to rheumatic fever, RF can still be treated with antibiotic injections or pills. But again, that depends on the availability of the medications in rural areas, and the family’s ability to get them. If repeated bouts of untreated rheumatic fever progress to RVHD, surgical intervention including heart valve repair or replacement may be required to treat those patients. That’s where the Children’s Fund comes in.
The vision of the Children’s Fund of Ethiopia is to promote and support good health for children in Ethiopia, through healing, education, partnerships and compassion. While the main focus in Ethiopia is to treat children who have already developed RVHD, the mission is also involved helping the local hospital staff to independently care for and treat these patients. The mission has also begun working with physicians in Ethiopia to start a public health project aimed at examining cases of RHVD across Ethiopia and the ultimate goal is to better diagnose and treat streptococcal infections in the rural areas before they advance to RF and RVHD.
RHVD is a serious problem in Sub-Saharan Africa and there are many factors involved with the prevention and treatment of it, but like Dr. Tahta says “We’re not trying to win the war, just the battle… for now.” We’re here to crank out some open heart surgeries.
In February 2015 I joined a team from Great Falls, Montana consisting of:
Stephen Tahta, MD, FACS, FRCSC, Cardiothoracic and Vascular surgeon at Community Medical Center in Missoula, MT and CEO of the Children’s Fund of Ethiopia.
Roberto Amado-Cattaneo, MD, FACS, Cardiothoracic and Vascular surgeon at Benefis Health System in Great Fall, MT.
Doug Maguire, MD, FRCP, Cardiac Anesthetist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Jennifer Plester, Anesthesiology Resident at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Wells Giles, CCP, Perfusionist at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, MT.
Adessa Bentley, RN, Cardiac Nurse at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, MT.
Sandy Einan, RN, Cardiac Nurse at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, MT.
Jamie Warcken, RN, Cardiac Intensive Care Nurse at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, MT.
In the end we filled ten checked bags and all of us took multiple heart valves in our carry-ons. I’ll be honest, I was disappointed not one person questioned us about them.
To be continued!