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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:

Crowded makeshift buildings of a shantytown

Calling greater attention to sub-Saharan Africa’s pressing challenges in pediatric cardiac care

Crowded makeshift buildings of a shantytown

Sub-Saharan Africa has only 0.19 pediatric cardiac surgeons per million children — nowhere near enough surgeons to care for all the pediatric congenital heart disease and acquired heart disease present in the people who live there.

A literature review in the journal Current Opinion in Cardiology draws further attention to the pressing needs for better pediatric cardiac care in regions of the world where the population continues to grow, but the development of specialty care for children continues to lag. The article focuses specifically on sub-Saharan Africa.

“If 40% of live births occur in Africa by 2050 as the projections suggest, congenital heart disease may well become the most important contributor to infant mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa in the next three decades,” stated the authors, including Annette Ansong, M.D., who recently joined Children’s National Hospital as medical director of outpatient cardiology.

As highlighted previously by other authors within the Global Health Initiative at Children’s National and through the work of the American Heart Association, the region’s needs are already significant in  tackling the impacts of existing congenital heart disease and rheumatic heart disease. Rheumatic heart disease is a devastating long-term outcome of rheumatic fever caused by untreated streptococcus infections.

Annette Ansong

“If 40% of live births occur in Africa by 2050 as the projections suggest, congenital heart disease may well become the most important contributor to infant mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa in the next three decades,” stated the authors, including Annette Ansong, M.D., who recently joined Children’s National Hospital as medical director of outpatient cardiology.

Dr. Ansong and colleagues reiterate the point that today, “whereas one cardiac center caters to approximately 120,000 people in North America, 33 million people in sub-Saharan Africa must depend on one center for care.” They also note that this region of Africa has only 0.19 pediatric cardiac surgeons per million children compared with more than 58 times as many in North America.

Changing the trajectory of pediatric cardiac care in sub-Saharan Africa will take motivation on several fronts, the authors write. Dedication to early detection and intervention (medical or surgical), an emphasis on building an in-country pipeline of human resources and skills’ sets are needed to tackle the increasing numbers of children requiring this specialty care. Political will and better financial resources can also support the training and development of centers that specialize in these capabilities.

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.

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Research and Education Week honors innovative science

Billie Lou Short and Kurt Newman at Research and Education Week

Billie Lou Short, M.D., received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

People joke that Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, invented extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO for short. While Dr. Short did not invent ECMO, under her leadership Children’s National was the first pediatric hospital to use it. And over decades Children’s staff have perfected its use to save the lives of tiny, vulnerable newborns by temporarily taking over for their struggling hearts and lungs. For two consecutive years, Children’s neonatal intensive care unit has been named the nation’s No. 1 for newborns by U.S. News & World Report. “Despite all of these accomplishments, Dr. Short’s best legacy is what she has done as a mentor to countless trainees, nurses and faculty she’s touched during their careers. She touches every type of clinical staff member who has come through our neonatal intensive care unit,” says An Massaro, M.D., director of residency research.

For these achievements, Dr. Short received the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Clinical Science.

Anna Penn, M.D., Ph.D., has provided new insights into the central role that the placental hormone allopregnanolone plays in orderly fetal brain development, and her research team has created novel experimental models that mimic some of the brain injuries often seen in very preterm babies – an essential step that informs future neuroprotective strategies. Dr. Penn, a clinical neonatologist and developmental neuroscientist, “has been a primary adviser for 40 mentees throughout their careers and embodies Children’s core values of Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” says Claire-Marie Vacher, Ph.D.

For these achievements, Dr. Penn was selected to receive the Ninth Annual Mentorship Award in Basic and Translational Science.

The mentorship awards for Drs. Short and Penn were among dozens of honors given in conjunction with “Frontiers in Innovation,” the Ninth Annual Research and Education Week (REW) at Children’s National. In addition to seven keynote lectures, more than 350 posters were submitted from researchers – from high-school students to full-time faculty – about basic and translational science, clinical research, community-based research, education, training and quality improvement; five poster presenters were showcased via Facebook Live events hosted by Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Two faculty members won twice: Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for research about mindfulness-based stress reduction and Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for research related to HIV. So many women at every stage of their research careers took to the stage to accept honors that Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., Vice Chair of Academic Affairs, quipped that “this day is power to women.”

Here are the 2019 REW award winners:

2019 Elda Y. Arce Teaching Scholars Award
Barbara Jantausch, M.D.
Lowell Frank, M.D.

Suzanne Feetham, Ph.D., FAA, Nursing Research Support Award
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Psychosocial and biological effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in adolescents with CHD/CIEDs: a randomized control trial”
Renee’ Roberts Turner for “Peak and nadir experiences of mid-level nurse leaders”

2019-2020 Global Health Initiative Exploration in Global Health Awards
Nathalie Quion, M.D., for “Latino youth and families need assessment,” conducted in Washington
Sonia Voleti for “Handheld ultrasound machine task shifting,” conducted in Micronesia
Tania Ahluwalia, M.D., for “Simulation curriculum for emergency medicine,” conducted in India
Yvonne Yui for “Designated resuscitation teams in NICUs,” conducted in Ghana
Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., MBBS, MSc, “Prevention of hospital-onset infections in PICUs,” conducted in China

Ninth Annual Research and Education Week Poster Session Awards

Basic and Translational Science
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Differences in the gut microbiome of HIV-infected versus HIV-exposed, uninfected infants”
Faculty: Hayk Barseghyan, Ph.D., for “Composite de novo Armenian human genome assembly and haplotyping via optical mapping and ultra-long read sequencing”
Staff: Damon K. McCullough, BS, for “Brain slicer: 3D-printed tissue processing tool for pediatric neuroscience research”
Staff: Antonio R. Porras, Ph.D., for “Integrated deep-learning method for genetic syndrome screening using facial photographs”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Lung Lau, M.D., for “A novel, sprayable and bio-absorbable sealant for wound dressings”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Kelsey F. Sugrue, Ph.D., for “HECTD1 is required for growth of the myocardium secondary to placental insufficiency”
Graduate students:
Erin R. Bonner, BA, for “Comprehensive mutation profiling of pediatric diffuse midline gliomas using liquid biopsy”
High school/undergraduate students: Ali Sarhan for “Parental somato-gonadal mosaic genetic variants are a source of recurrent risk for de novo disorders and parental health concerns: a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis”

Clinical Research
Faculty:
Amy Hont, M.D., for “Ex vivo expanded multi-tumor antigen specific T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors”
Faculty: Lauren McLaughlin, M.D., for “EBV/LMP-specific T-cells maintain remissions of T- and B-cell EBV lymphomas after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation”

Staff: Iman A. Abdikarim, BA, for “Timing of allergenic food introduction among African American and Caucasian children with food allergy in the FORWARD study”
Staff: Gelina M. Sani, BS, for “Quantifying hematopoietic stem cells towards in utero gene therapy for treatment of sickle cell disease in fetal cord blood”
Post docs/fellows/residents: Amy H. Jones, M.D., for “To trach or not trach: exploration of parental conflict, regret and impacts on quality of life in tracheostomy decision-making”
Graduate students: Alyssa Dewyer, BS, for “Telemedicine support of cardiac care in Northern Uganda: leveraging hand-held echocardiography and task-shifting”
Graduate students: Natalie Pudalov, BA, “Cortical thickness asymmetries in MRI-abnormal pediatric epilepsy patients: a potential metric for surgery outcome”
High school/undergraduate students:
Kia Yoshinaga for “Time to rhythm detection during pediatric cardiac arrest in a pediatric emergency department”

Community-Based Research
Faculty:
Adeline (Wei Li) Koay, MBBS, MSc, for “Recent trends in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Staff: Gia M. Badolato, MPH, for “STI screening in an urban ED based on chief complaint”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Christina P. Ho, M.D., for “Pediatric urinary tract infection resistance patterns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area”
Graduate students:
Noushine Sadeghi, BS, “Racial/ethnic disparities in receipt of sexual health services among adolescent females”

Education, Training and Program Development
Faculty:
Cara Lichtenstein, M.D., MPH, for “Using a community bus trip to increase knowledge of health disparities”
Staff:
Iana Y. Clarence, MPH, for “TEACHing residents to address child poverty: an innovative multimodal curriculum”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Johanna Kaufman, M.D., for “Inpatient consultation in pediatrics: a learning tool to improve communication”
High school/undergraduate students:
Brett E. Pearson for “Analysis of unanticipated problems in CNMC human subjects research studies and implications for process improvement”

Quality and Performance Improvement
Faculty:
Vicki Freedenberg, Ph.D., APRN, for “Implementing a mindfulness-based stress reduction curriculum in a congenital heart disease program”
Staff:
Caleb Griffith, MPH, for “Assessing the sustainability of point-of-care HIV screening of adolescents in pediatric emergency departments”
Post docs/fellows/residents:
Rebecca S. Zee, M.D., Ph.D., for “Implementation of the Accelerated Care of Torsion (ACT) pathway: a quality improvement initiative for testicular torsion”
Graduate students:
Alysia Wiener, BS, for “Latency period in image-guided needle bone biopsy in children: a single center experience”

View images from the REW2019 award ceremony.