Rheumatic Heart Disease in Africa
Heart disease is a significant burden across the world. From the Americas to Africa, heart disease affects people globally. While heart disease affects people from all spectrums of the socio-economic ladder, it disproportionately influences the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Nowhere is this more apparent than with rheumatic heart disease in Africa.

What is Rheumatic Heart Disease?

Rheumatic fever is the precursor to rheumatic heart disease. Rheumatic fever affects the connective tissue in multiple areas of the body, particularly the heart. Prolonged exposure to the illness can cause rheumatic heart disease due to the heart valves becoming swollen and scarred. Over time, this can lead to heart failure. Undertreated or ignored strep throat is the precursor to rheumatic fever. Those with frequent bouts of strep infections are at an increased risk of contracting rheumatic fever, particularly children. Children between the ages of 5 to 15 are particularly susceptible to rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever and by extension, rheumatic heart disease, mainly affects children in underdeveloped nations.

Rheumatic Heart Disease in Africa: The Facts

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of rheumatic heart disease cases in children between 5 to 14, with 1,008,207 cases.  In developed countries, the number of cases is drastically lower, with 33,330 cases. Thankfully, rheumatic heart disease is an easily preventable disease. Consistent, long-term treatment with penicillin can prevent rheumatic fever from progressing into rheumatic heart disease. Rheumatic fever is avoidable with early treatment of strep throat. This leaves the main reasons for the spread of rheumatic heart disease as a lack of resources, money and lack of knowledge about preventative measures.

How to Fight Rheumatic Heart Disease in Africa?

A multitude of nongovernmental organizations lent their services to the fight against rheumatic heart disease in Africa. One of these NGOs is the World Heart Federation (WHF), a group that dedicates itself to the eradication of rheumatic heart disease. On May 25, 2018, the global community put the World Health Organization’s resolution on rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease into action, and this led to the creation of the WHF Rheumatic Heart Disease Taskforce (RHDTF). This task force comprises three separate groups. The first group is the Access to Surgery group, which, as the name implies, focuses on developing strategies to bring lifesaving surgery to low-income countries. The Access to Surgery group works to create surgical centers dedicated to rheumatic heart disease surgery. The second and third groups in this task force are the Policy and Advocacy group and the Prevention and Control group. The Policy and Advocacy group works to increase access to penicillin in low-income areas by dealing with red-tape that can often affect the supply of penicillin. The Prevention and Control group focuses more on investing in projects that take on rheumatic heart disease at the local level.

The Future of Rheumatic Heart Disease

The future looks brighter for those suffering from rheumatic heart disease in Africa. Rheumatic heart disease is entirely preventable, with conventional prevention techniques such as avoiding sharing drinks, coughing away from others and even making sure to frequently wash hands.  With the help of NGOs like WHF and countries like Ghana hosting World Heart Day to raise awareness for rheumatic heart disease, there is hope that this disease’s days are finite.

Ryan Holman
Photo: Flickr