Fighting rheumatic heart disease in kids

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Research funded by the Heart Foundation has found that children found to have rheumatic heart disease on screening can progress to severe disease, and need to be closely monitored to help manage the disease and prolong life.

Rheumatic heart disease leads to serious complications such as stroke and premature death in adolescents and young adults. While the disease is preventable, and treatable when found early, young people continue to die because the disease is detected too late.

Researcher Dr Daniel Engelman, from the Centre for International Child Health at the University of Melbourne, followed a group of children in Fiji with RHD from 2006 to 2015.

Dr Engelman and his colleagues from the Fiji Ministry of Health performed repeat ultrasounds to understand how RHD changed over time and conducted interviews with patients and families to better understand the disease, management and the impact on their lives.

His research found that after the first screening, even children with the mildest form of rheumatic heart disease can develop severe disease and complications, and need to be rechecked at regular intervals with medical staff. 

In another project last year, nurses were trained to perform the heart ultrasounds, which will be needed in areas where there are no doctors.
Currently, a shortage of echocardiographers and cardiologists to perform and interpret RHD ultrasound tests is a major barrier to detecting the disease early.
Dr Engelman says this work could lead to a feasible strategy that Australia and other countries could implement to find cases in remote areas before they become too sick and commence the preventative treatment.

“I am extremely grateful for the ongoing support of the National Heart Foundation, without whom my research in this area wouldn’t have been possible.”

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