Experts weigh in on matters of the heart in honour of Chris Barnard

2017-12-03 14:12
Silicon mannequins representing doctors, nurses, and staff, together with some of the original equipment used in the world's first human-to-human heart transplant on December 3, 1967, are on display at the Heart of Cape Town museum, at Groote Schuur Hospital. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

Silicon mannequins representing doctors, nurses, and staff, together with some of the original equipment used in the world's first human-to-human heart transplant on December 3, 1967, are on display at the Heart of Cape Town museum, at Groote Schuur Hospital. (Rodger Bosch, AFP)

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Cape Town - Matters of the heart in tribute of one of the world’s most celebrated surgeons are under the spotlight at Groote Schuur Hospital, where Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967.

December 3 marks the 50th anniversary of the pioneering operation in which Barnard transferred the heart of a person who had died of a head injury to Louis Washkansky, 54.

He lived for 18 days until he died of pneumonia.

In commemoration of the ground-breaking procedure, surgeons and cardiology experts from around the globe gathered at the hospital to honour one of the medical world’s most respected names.

The first part of Sunday morning's events was dedicated to Barnard's life and legacy.

- Read more: How a historic heart transplant created a celebrity scientist 50 years ago

Conference declaration

The three-day conference kicked off on Saturday with specialists giving their input for a draft "Cape Town Declaration", which will commit surgeons, academic and political heads to help the 33 million people worldwide suffering from rheumatic heart disease.

The disease damages a person’s heart valves due to untreated infection of the throat with streptococcal bacteria and is said to mostly be suffered by the poor.

Professor Deon Bezuidenhout, of the University of Cape Town’s cardiovascular research unit, explained that the experts attending the symposium are from both industrialised and developing nations, who will put their heads and hearts together to try and find solutions for the millions of people who are not benefiting from cardiac surgery due to access and financial issues.

While the conference looks at the history and breakthrough made by Barnard that "revolutionised medicine", it also focuses on his courage and innovation, he said.

"We are looking back and tipping our hats to what happened 50 years ago, acknowledging and celebrating that anniversary. Then we are looking at what has happened since then up until now, and how we have improved cardiac surgery.

"Then we are looking forward and seeing where we are falling short, as well as what we can do further to improve the fate and lot of millions of people who still don’t have that access."

The aim of the declaration was to set in motion a plan to address this, identify who would be involved, and set the first targets.

"It’s obviously very difficult to eradicate a global problem, but you need to start somewhere. The idea is to sow these seeds and start with something that can then grow into something bigger."

'Something needs to be done'

Heather Coombes, chief operations officer of UCT start-up company Strait Access Technologies, said the symposium was the first step in a commitment from role players to "do something".

"It’s not acceptable that in the US you have one cardiac centre for every 120 000 people, while in Mozambique two cardiac centres service 27 million people and are situated two kilometres apart.

"It’s not right. Something needs to be done. We need to get access. We need to get these therapies into areas that need it."

And it will take co-operation and input from government, NGOs, academia, business, policy makers and healthcare workers themselves, Bezuidenhout believes.

"The conference is not about the First World coming to sort out our problems. We have to do something and they may guide and help us. It’s a commitment from all sides to acknowledge there is a problem and to commit to do something about it."

Read more on:    christiaan barnard  |  cape town  |  health  |  healthcare

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