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Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute

Lifesaving heart surgeries for RHD complications in Uganda go on despite COVID-19

Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute

Patients and staff at the Uganda Heart Institute for RHD-related heart surgeries in Uganda, March 2020. These patients were originally scheduled as part of the cancelled medical mission, but UHI cardiovascular surgeon successfully managed these cases without the support of the mission doctors from the U.S.

In early March as countries around the globe began to wrestle with how best to tackle the spread of COVID-19, a group of doctors, nurses, researchers and other medical staff from Children’s National Hospital were wrestling with a distinct set of challenges: What to do about the 10 Ugandan children and adults who were currently scheduled for lifesaving heart surgery (and the countless others who would benefit from the continued training of the local heart surgery team) to correct complications of rheumatic heart disease (RHD) during an impending medical mission in the country.

Rheumatic heart disease impacts over 39 million people globally and causes nearly 300,000 deaths per year. RHD is the result of frequent, untreated streptococcal throat infections in childhood that ultimately cause the body’s immune system to repeatedly damage heart valves. It is completely preventable, yet the majority of the world’s children still live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions that predispose them to RHD. Most patients present with advanced valvular heart disease. For example, in Uganda, an RHD registry includes over 600 children with clinical RHD, of which nearly 40% die within four years and the median survival time from enrollment in the registry is only nine months. For these patients, heart surgery is the only viable solution for long-term survival and normal quality of life.

Patricia: 9-year-old from Gulu

Patricia: 9-year-old from Gulu (northern Uganda), had mitral valve replacement and was doing well on a recent follow-up visit at her home.

The scheduled trip from Washington was part of a nearly 20-year partnership** between doctors, nurses, researchers and other medical staff in the United States, including Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of cardiology, and and Pranava Sinha, M.D.,pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Uganda Heart Institute in Kampala, Uganda. The partnership aims to tackle RHD head-on. It provides surgical skill transfer, allows for treatment of more complex patients, and increases sustainable surgical capacity for Uganda’s RHD patients over time. As a result, over the last 15 years more than 1,000 children have received lifesaving heart surgery in Uganda, with the Uganda Heart Institute (UHI) performing one to two heart valve surgeries every two weeks over the last few years.

Jackline: 12-year-old from Gulu

Jackline: 12-year-old from Gulu, had mitral valve repair and aortic valve replacement. Jackline and Patricia were diagnosed through one of our research programs and benefit from our novel telehealth program, which helps connect patients from remote parts of Uganda to specialists at UHI.

COVID-19 was changing the current plan, however. Travel between countries was limited, and the team from the U.S. wouldn’t have been permitted to leave the U.S. and return according to schedule. The trip, and the support teams who were scheduled to arrive to help with the surgeries, were cancelled. The U.S. team members who had already arrived in Uganda were sent home after helping their UHI colleagues set up and prepare for the surgeries as much as possible. Knowing that patients and families were counting on the surgery mission to go forward after waiting for months or years to have surgery for heart valve disease, UHI decided not to cancel the majority of the surgeries. Instead, for the first time, they planned and successfully completed five valve-related cases in a single week – several of them quite complex. The cardiologists and cardiac surgeons from Children’s National who were supposed to be in-country for these procedures were forced to limit their in person assistance to the set-up activities the week prior to surgery and telehealth consult during the procedures.

“It was hard not to be able to stay  and work with the UHI team to help these families,” says Dr. Sable. “But we are so proud of the UHI team for meeting this challenge on their own. We knew they had the skills to perform at this volume and complexity. It’s a proud moment to see the team accomplish this major milestone, and to see the patients they cared for thrive.”

The patients are the most important outcome: The five who had successful open-heart surgery are all doing well, either on their way to recovery or already discharged to their communities, where they will, for the first time in memory, be able to play, exercise and go to school or work.

Longer term, this success demonstrates the UHI medical team’s ability to manage greater surgical capacity even when surgical missions from the U.S. resume. The partnership’s goal is to complete at least 1,000 annual operations (both pediatric and adult), with the majority being performed by the local team. Having this capacity available will mean the difference between life and death for many children and adults who have RHD in Uganda and the surrounding countries.

**This work is supported by the Edwards Life Sciences/Thoracic Surgery Foundation, the Emirates Airline Foundation, Samaritan’s Purse Children’s Heart Project and Gift of Life International.

Pediatric angiography

Congenital heart disease more deadly in low-income countries

Pediatric angiography

Even though mortality from congenital heart disease (CHD) has declined over the last three decades as diagnosis and treatments have advanced, the chances for a child to survive a CHD diagnosis significantly differs based on the country where he or she is born.

This eye-opening finding is drawn from the first comprehensive study of congenital heart disease across 195 countries, prepared using data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study 2017 (GBD), and recently published in The Lancet.

“Previous congenital heart estimates came from few data sources, were geographically narrow and did not evaluate CHD throughout the life course,” write the authors, known collectively as the 2017 GBD Congenital Heart Disease Collaborators. Co-lead author Meghan D. Zimmerman, M.D., worked on the study while completing her pediatric cardiology and American Heart Association Global Health Fellowships at Children’s National Hospital, and two pediatric cardiologists from Children’s National, Cardiology Associate Chief Craig Sable, M.D., and Gerard Martin, M.D., medical director of Global Services, provided leadership and oversight of this paper. The remaining collaborators are from more than 45 institutions around the world, spanning cardiology, public health and schools of medicine on every continent.

This is the first time the GBD study data was used along with all available data sources and previous publications – making it the most comprehensive study on congenital heart disease burden to date. Key differences between this study and prior estimates include:

  • Anatomic groupings of CHD by type, rather than simply categorized as moderate, severe or critical.
  • Inclusion of new data sources, including data from screening programs, congenital registries, administrative data and data sources in mortality and survival.
  • A control mechanism to account for cases of CHD that remit on their own to reduce the risk of overestimating prevalence.
  • Inclusion of all cases of congenital heart disease, including those with chromosomal or genetic anomalies such as Trisomy 21 that often co-occur.

This more comprehensive data set led to findings that showed lower predicted long-term survival, higher remission, and lower prevalence than previous studies that extrapolated evidence from studies of high-income countries. However, it also means these new estimates are a more accurate representation of the current global state of affairs. Overall, the study found:

  • A 34.5% decline in deaths from congenital disease between 1990 to 2017.
  • Nearly 70% of deaths caused by CHD in 2017 (180,624) were in infants less than one year old.
  • Most CHD deaths occurred in countries within the low and low-middle socio-demographic index (SDI) quintiles.
  • Mortality rates get lower as a country’s SDI rises.
  • Birth prevalence of CHD was not related to a country’s socio-demographic status, but overall prevalence was much lower in the poorest countries of the world. This is because children in these countries do not have access to life saving surgical services.
  • Nearly 12 million people are currently living with CHD globally, 18.7% more than in 1990.
  • The burden of CHD is not fully realized by just looking at prevalence and mortality. The measure “Years of Life Lost” provides deeper insight into the staggering burden of CHD, taking into account both absolute mortality and age at death.

“In high income countries like the United States, we diagnose some heart conditions prenatally during the 20-week ultrasound,” says Gerard Martin, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital who contributed to the study. “We catch others right after birth with a pulse oximetry screening for critical congenital heart disease. We can operate to correct a critical issue within the first week of life. And now our CHD kids are growing and thriving through adulthood and having families of their own.”

“For children born in middle- and low-income countries, these data draw stark attention to what we as cardiologists already knew from our own work in these countries – the lack of diagnostic and treatment tools leads to lower survival rates for children born with CHD,” adds Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of cardiology at Children’s National, another primary contributor. “This is one of the most significant publications I have been a part of as it highlights the substantial loss of life to CHD in infancy around the globe.”

The authors write, “The UN has prioritized reduction of premature deaths from heart disease, but to meet the target of ‘ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age,’ health policy makers will need to develop specific accountability measures that address barriers and improve access to care and treatment.”

The study also includes a 400-page appendix breaking down each area by type of congenital anomaly, world region and country.

doctor's stethescope coming out of a computer

Virtual cardiology follow-ups may save families time and money

doctor's stethescope coming out of a computer

Virtual cardiology follow-ups via computer or smartphone are a feasible alternative to in-person patient follow-ups for some pediatric cardiac conditions.

A poster presentation at the AHA Scientific Sessions shows successful implementation of virtual care delivered directly to patients and families via technology.

Health provider follow-ups delivered via computer or smartphone is a feasible alternative to in-person patient follow-ups for some pediatric cardiac conditions, according to the findings of a pilot study presented at the AHA Scientific Sessions this week.

“We’ve used telemedicine in pediatric cardiology for physician-to-physician communications for years at Children’s National, thanks to cardiologists like Dr. Craig Sable,” says Ashraf Harahsheh, M.D., cardiologist at Children’s National Hospital and senior author of the study. “But this is the first time we’ve really had the appropriate technology to speak directly to patients and their families in their homes instead of requiring an in-person visit.”

“We developed it [telemedicine] into a primary every day component of reading echocardiograms around the region and the globe,” says Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of cardiology at Children’s National. “Telemedicine has enabled doctors at Children’s National to extend our reach to improve the care of children and avoid unnecessary transport, family travel and lost time from work.”

Participants in the virtual visit pilot study were previously established patients with hyperlipidemia, hypercholesterolemia, syncope, or who needed to discuss cardiac testing results. The retrospective sample included 18 families who met the criteria and were open to the virtual visit/telehealth follow up option between 2016 and 2019. Six months after their virtual visit, none of the participants had presented urgently with a cardiology issue. While many (39%) had additional visits with cardiology scheduled as in person, none of those subsequent in-person visits were a result of a deficiency related to the virtual visit.

“There are many more questions to be answered about how best to appropriately use technology advances that allow us to see and hear our patients without requiring them to travel a great distance,” adds Dr. Harahsheh. “But my team and I were encouraged by the results of our small study, and by the anecdotal positive reviews from families who participated. We’re looking forward to determining how we can successfully and cost-effectively implement these approaches as additional options for our families to get the care they need.”

The project was supported by the Research, Education, Advocacy, and Child Health Care (REACH) program within the Children’s National Hospital Pediatric Residency Program.

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Direct-to-Consumer Cardiology Telemedicine: A Single Large Academic Pediatric Center Experience
Aaron A. Phillips, M.D., Craig A. Sable, M.D., FAAP; Christina Waggaman, M.S.; and Ashraf S. Harahsheh, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.A.P.
Poster Presentation by first author Aaron Phillips, M.D., a third-year resident at Children’s National
CH.APS.12 – Man vs. Machine: Tech in Kids
AHA Scientific Sessions 2019
November 17, 2019
12:30 -1:00 p.m.