Paediatric heart specialists hope that an outreach initiative started back in 2016, allowing them to travel to rural areas in the Free State to diagnose heart defects in babies early, would grow and expand to other rural areas and provinces.
According to Prof. Stephen Brown, principal specialist and head of the fivision of Paediatric Cardiology in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS), more than 40 babies in the rural areas of South Africa may die as a result of an undiagnosed heart lesion every year because everyone assumes that they have respiratory problems when they actually have critical congenital heart disease – up to 85% of which is curable. He added that a life-saving collaboration initiative between the UFS, the Mother and Child Academic Hospital (Machah) Foundation, and the Discovery Fund started five years ago to help curb the death of young patients due to congenital heart disease and to make services more accessible to rural communities.
“We partnered with Machah, and since early detection of congenital heart disease makes a big difference, it fits in nicely with Machah’s First 1 000 Days Drive. Due to the hard work of Mrs Tertia de Bruyn, we were given the opportunity to come into contact with Discovery.”
According to him, a mobile echocardiography apparatus was donated by the Discovery Foundation via Machah, which is crucial for doing this outreach work. The machine looks like a laptop and can be transported in a carrycase.
Prof. Brown explained that they see 170 to 250 patients on an annual basis and since initiation in 2020, Pelonomi Secondary Hospital has seen on average 40 children per month receiving a heart sonar. “Covid-19 has, however, had a major impact on our work,” he said.
By doing outreach, Prof. Brown concludes, they have learned so much about the communities and the importance of being accessible, as patients appreciate having direct interaction with the professor. “The doctors and staff have also been enthusiastic and supported us tremendously at all the hospitals.” Students from Cuba have joined Prof. Brown and his team when visiting their hospitals, and they could spend some dedicated clinical teaching time together.