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Ugandan boy in hospital bed

Acute rheumatic fever often goes undiagnosed in sub-Saharan Africa

Ugandan boy in hospital bed

Despite low numbers of documented acute rheumatic fever cases in sub-Saharan Africa, the region continues to show some of the highest numbers of people with, and dying from, rheumatic heart disease, the serious heart damage caused by repeat instances of rheumatic fever.

Despite low numbers of documented acute rheumatic fever cases in sub-Saharan Africa, the region continues to show some of the highest numbers of people with, and dying from, rheumatic heart disease, the serious heart damage caused by repeat instances of rheumatic fever. A population-based study in the Lancet Global Health collected evidence of acute rheumatic fever in two areas of Uganda, providing the first quantifiable evidence in decades that the disease continues to take a deadly toll on the region’s people.

“These findings matter. Access to life-saving heart surgery is only available to a very small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of patients in Africa who have irreversible heart damage from rheumatic heart disease,” says Craig Sable, M.D., associate chief of Cardiology at Children’s National Hospital and one of the senior authors of the study. “It’s time to focus upstream on capturing these conditions sooner, even in low-resource settings, so we can implement life-sustaining and cost-saving preventive treatments that can prevent further heart damage.”

The authors, who hail from Uganda and several institutions around the United States, including Children’s National and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, note this is the first study to use an active case-finding strategy for diagnosing acute rheumatic fever. They also note that raising awareness in the community and among its healthcare workers while also finding new ways to overcome some of the diagnostic challenges in these low-resource settings greatly improved diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

The study also described clinical characteristics of children ages 5 to 14 presenting with both definitive and possible acute rheumatic fever, providing further clinical data points to help healthcare workers in these communities differentiate between this common infection and some of the other frequently diagnosed conditions in the region.

“With this study, we can now confidently dismiss the myth that acute rheumatic fever is rare in Africa,” the authors write. “It exists at elevated rates in low-resource settings such as Uganda, even though routine diagnosis remains uncommon. While these incidence data have likely underestimated the cases of acute rheumatic fever in two districts in Uganda, they show that opportunity exists to improve community sensitization and healthcare worker training to increase awareness of acute rheumatic fever. Ultimately this leads to diagnosing more children with the condition before they develop rheumatic heart disease, so that they can be offered secondary prophylaxis with penicillin.”

Children with suspected acute rheumatic fever participated in this population-based study. Data was collected over 12 months in Lira district (January 2018 to December 2018) and over nine months (June 2019 to February 2020) in Mbarara district.

Follow-up of children diagnosed in this study will provide more data on the outcomes of acute rheumatic fever, including a better understanding of the risk for a child to develop rheumatic heart disease.

This work was funded by the American Heart Association Children’s Strategically Focused Research Network Grant #17SFRN33670607 and by DEL‐15‐011 to THRiVE‐2 and General Electric.

Learn more about the challenges of rheumatic heart disease in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing parts of the world through the Rheumatic Heart Disease microdocumentary series:


little girl at the dentist

Limit antibiotic use before dental procedures to high-risk heart patients, says AHA

little girl at the dentist

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) says that good oral hygiene and regular dental care are the most important ways to reduce the risk of a heart infection called infective endocarditis (IE) caused by bacteria in the mouth.

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) says that good oral hygiene and regular dental care are the most important ways to reduce the risk of a heart infection called infective endocarditis (IE) caused by bacteria in the mouth. The statement was published in Circulation, the AHA’s flagship journal.

This statement addresses the impact of the major changes made in the 2007 AHA infective endocarditis (IE) guidelines that limited antibiotic prophylaxis (AP) prior to dental procedures to cardiac conditions at highest risk of complications from endocarditis by focusing on the following:

  • What was the acceptance of and compliance with the 2007 recommendations?
  • Was there an increased incidence of viridians group streptococci (VGS) infective endocarditis (IE)?
  • Were the recommendations from the guideline valid and should they be revised?

While the statement speaks to all types of heart disease, one area of particular interest in congenital heart disease was highlighted by statement co-author Craig Sable, M.D., F.A.H.A., associate division chief of Cardiology at Children’s National Hospital.

He noted that the statement specifies that children and adult congenital heart patients undergoing pulmonary valve replacement can be at higher risk for IE. The most significant risk factor for IE is the material the valve is made from, regardless of whether it is placed by surgery or catheterization.

Read more about this statement from the AHA

Watch AHA’s video explaining the statement, which features Dr. Sable.

Dr. Craig Sable

AHA doubles down on global support, prevention and research in rheumatic heart disease

Dr. Craig Sable

Dr. Craig Sable and pediatric cardiology colleagues led the creation of a scientific statement and advocacy statement focused on eradicating RHD.

A pair of articles appearing in the American Heart Association’s (AHA) journal Circulation lays out a call to action for advocacy and scientific priorities crucial to the global eradication of rheumatic heart disease (RHD).

Cardiologists from Children’s National Hospital, and others who completed their pediatric cardiology fellowships at Children’s National before moving on to careers at other institutions, have been active proponents and advocates for these efforts for many years and led key research and clinical care efforts related to RHD in other countries of the world.

These cardiologists, including the associate chief of cardiology at Children’s National, Craig Sable, M.D., who previously served as chair of the AHA Council on Lifelong Congenital Heart Disease and Heart Health in the Young, also helped lead the creation of these new published statements.

Contemporary diagnosis and management of rheumatic heart disease: Implications for closing the gap

This clinical and research statement “seeks to examine the current state of-the-art recommendations and to identify gaps in diagnosis and treatment globally that can inform strategies for reducing disease burden.”

Key recommendations and related challenges were mapped out, including:

  • The need for echocardiography screening based on World Heart Federation echocardiographic criteria for identifying patients earlier, when prophylaxis is more likely to be effective. However, the authors note that several important questions need to be answered before this can translate into public policy.
  • The creation of population-based registries to effectively enable optimal care and secondary penicillin prophylaxis within available resources, though the team acknowledges that challenges with penicillin procurement and concern with adverse reactions in patients with advanced disease remain important issues.
  • Heart failure management, prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of endocarditis, oral anticoagulation for atrial fibrillation and prosthetic valves used as vital therapeutic adjuncts.
  • Multidisciplinary team management of health of women with unoperated and operated rheumatic heart disease before, during and after pregnancy is the best approach, though it is a significant challenge.
  • Percutaneous balloon mitral valvuloplasty should be considered for patients with isolated mitral stenosis.
  • Timely heart valve surgery, especially valve repair for rheumatic mitral regurgitation, can mitigate the progression to heart failure, disability and death. However, some of these procedures are not available to the vast majority of patients in endemic regions.

The recommendations made in the scientific statement form the foundation for the advocacy companion document.

The AHA’s call to action for reducing the global burden of rheumatic heart disease: a policy statement from the AHA

The advocacy statement outlines five key areas of support:

  1. Professional healthcare worker education and training.
  2. Technical support for the implementation of evidence-based strategies for rheumatic fever/RHD prevention.
  3. Access to essential medications and technologies.
  4. Research.
  5. Advocacy to increase global awareness, resources and capacity for RHD control.

The authors write, “In bolstering the efforts of the American Heart Association to combat RHD, we hope to inspire others to collaborate, communicate and contribute.”

Speaking of the two statements as a whole, the authors of the scientific statement conclude that, “Ultimately, the combination of expanded treatment options, research and advocacy built on existing knowledge and science provides the best opportunity to address the burden of rheumatic heart disease.”

Read more about Children’s National Heart Institute’s research, education and clinical care in rheumatic heart disease.

Craig Sable, M.D., Associate Chief of the Division of Cardiology and Director of Echocardiography at Children’s National Health System, is working with hundreds of doctors to create a scalable solution to reduce the global burden of rheumatic heart disease (RHD). Dr. Sable received a lifetime achievement award — the 2018 Cardiovascular Disease in the Young (CVDY) Meritorious Achievement Award — from the American Heart Association for his work in Uganda.

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.