Why we should pay more attention to congenital heart disease

CHD is the leading cause of deaths among babies in the developed world.
CHD is the leading cause of deaths among babies in the developed world.

What is CHD?

The term “congenital heart disease” refers to problems within the structure of the heart or the blood vessels leading to or from the heart. CHD is the most common type of birth defect in the world and the leading cause of deaths among babies in the developed world.

Despite the availability of screening tests done before or straight after birth, many children with life-threatening CHD are still being discharged from hospitals undiagnosed.

In Africa, the vast majority of children with CHD are not diagnosed early enough because their mothers don’t have access to or don’t know about the screening tests that can pinpoint these life-threatening defects. However, even for those who are diagnosed in time, access to the correct medical care isn’t always available. As a result, children living with CHD in many parts of Africa die in their early teens or early adulthood.

The good news is that, if diagnosed in time, the majority of children with CHD can be treated successfully. In fact, most make a full recovery.

What moms can do

In South Africa, factors such as a shortage of specialists, poor screening rates, late bookings and early discharge from hospital all contribute to many children with CHD not being diagnosed.

If you’re a mom-to-be or a new mom, it’s important to play an active role in getting the appropriate tests done.

  • While you’re pregnant, ask your doctor about having a screening test done to detect any heart defects in your unborn baby.
  • Before being discharged from hospital after giving birth, ask your doctor about getting a newborn pulse oximetry (POx) screening test done.
  • Go for your baby’s routine check-ups. Ask your doctor to check if your baby’s heart is functioning as it should and if the heart chambers have developed correctly.

Important: don’t ignore the following symptoms — all of which could point to CHD.

  • Blueish skin, lips and/or tongue
  • Shortness of breath
  • A fast heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lack of energy
  • Sweating
  • Not wanting to feed
  • Failure to thrive
  • Cold hands and feet

If some of the above symptoms are present, check in with your doctor as soon as possible and specifically ask them to check for a heart defect.

Support for families

If your little one has been diagnosed with CHD, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to manage their condition. While surgery can repair the defect, a healthy lifestyle and ongoing medication need to be part of your child’s journey towards better health.

To connect with and obtain support from other parents who are on the same journey as you, visit www.facebook.com/BraveLittleHeartsSA. This community initiative connects CHD families with each other, using the power of the group to find practical solutions to everyday problems.

Image credit: iStock

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